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Albert Nobbs

So. The new releases this weekend are a CGI kids’ movie sequel that no one asked for, a 3-D re-release of a laughingstock among geek circles, and a critically panned Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds action collaboration. This sounds like a good time to catch up on some Oscar contenders that I haven’t gotten to yet.

First up is Albert Nobbs, a movie that I was not looking forward to one bit. Yes, the movie looked like it provided some good opportunities for Glenn Close, and Jane Eyre was certainly enough to make me a fan of Mia Wasikowska, but the trailer and the critical response to this movie were enough to make me expect the worst as I bought my ticket. And oh, how this movie delivered it.

The premise is as follows: Sometime in turn-of-the-century London, an old lesbian who goes by the name of Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) disguises herself as a man so she can work as a butler and save her money. In theory, this is a simple premise. In practice, let me count the ways the movie screws it up.

To start with, the movie begins by showing us a day in the life of the staff at Morrison’s hotel, where Nobbs and her colleagues work. In this scene, we see the waiting staff stand quietly by, blending into the wallpaper, until they’re needed by the rich party guests. In other words, the characters in this scene are divided between a bunch of rich assholes and a bunch of people who work to hide any hint of personality. It’s a trend that continues throughout the entire cast as the film continues. There are exceptions, but we’ll get to those later.

This scene also damages the premise, because it leads to the question of why Albert would need to hide her sex at all. Yes, I realize that gender inequality was huge at the time, but not at this social level. As depicted in this movie, the servants are all equally disposable, expected to do the same menial tasks, and held to the same emotionless standard. Albert would have been treated the same whether male or female, so why the subterfuge? To hide that she’s a lesbian? Hell, concealing her desires and sexual activities might have been far easier if she didn’t have to conceal her breasts as well!

Granted, there is an explanation as to why Nobbs began disguising herself as a man, but let’s take it one disappointment at a time, hm?

As for another key reason why the premise doesn’t work… well, just look at this. The makeup is decent and Glenn Close’s voice work is impressive, but come on. That disguise should not be enough to fool anyone. Now, you might think that the disguise is only so transparent because we already know what Close looks like. Well, that excuse doesn’t hold up nearly as well for the movie’s second cross-dresser. Yes, there is another male impersonator in this movie. I won’t say who it is, partly because I want to avoid spoilers and partly because anyone with two functioning eyes should be able to tell who it is within five seconds.

As for Albert Nobbs herself, the protagonist of this movie fails hard. It’s one thing to keep a low profile (as someone in her position would be smart to do), and it’s quite another to be a total nonentity. Even when Nobbs is out of disguise, she’s a paranoid and socially inept twit. Though Nobbs does have a good head for money and mathematics, she’s otherwise a complete dolt. For God’s sake, she aspires to be a tobacconist, despite never having rolled or smoked a cigarette in her life! Even worse, Nobbs is a total coward who does very little to advance the plot in any meaningful way. Even when she finally does grow a backbone in the climax, it amounts to absolutely nothing.

Having said all that, Glenn Close does bring her A-game here. Normally, I would cut a bit of slack for a great actress doing her damnedest to salvage a godawful role, but not here. From start to finish, this is Close’s movie. She starred in this movie. She co-produced this movie. She co-wrote the damn screenplay. She even wrote the lyrics of the song that plays over the end credits, for fuck’s sake. So how am I supposed to have any sympathy for an actress who had this much control over the final product and still would up with a crappy role?

Alas, Close is hardly the only victim here. Brendan Gleeson, Phyllida Law, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Mark Williams all appear in this movie, and they are all entirely wasted. Their characters — and many others in the film — just drift in and out of the proceedings, given the faintest trace of development only to disappear at the first sign of growing a personality. Even worse is when such characters are given something pivotal to work with — Gleeson’s marital infidelity, for example — that leads to nothing and is never mentioned again.

All of that being said, there are still some good performances to be found here. Janet McTeer came out of this film with an Oscar nod, and I won’t deny that her performance was a very welcome bit of fresh air. Still, in my opinion, the nomination really should have gone to Mia Wasikowska, who fucking kills it here. During those times when Helen Dawes is allowed to have a personality, Wasikowska imbues her with a great degree of youth, life, and sexuality. Still, Helen is far from a one-dimensional character, and Wasikowska elegantly sells all the many emotional difficulties that Helen goes through.

Then there’s the matter of Aaron Johnson. He plays Joe Mackins, a handsome rogue from the street who finds work as the hotel’s boiler repairman. The character is quite stock, but Johnson plays him with such ferocity and libido that I somehow forgot all about his performance as the geeky lead of Kick-Ass. The character’s blue-collar immorality, coupled with Johnson’s energetic performance, made for a delightful contrast against the stuffy upper-crust setting.

As the story unfolds, a love triangle develops between Joe, Helen, and Nobbs. Joe actually encourages this, as Nobbs courts Helen through expensive gifts that Joe can take and (possibly) use to fund his and Helen’s voyage to America. In this triangle, Nobbs is a spineless idiot whose wooing of a much younger woman is based entirely on a lie. Meanwhile, Joe (fun though he is to watch) is an abusive asshole who’s using his girlfriend to trick hard-earned money out of a well-meaning old man. As for Helen, she’s being simultaneously used and abused by two suitors. Of those three, I’m sure you can guess who has 100% of my sympathy.

Oh, but I haven’t even begun scratching the surface of how terribly this story is told. Though the film does stop short of abortions and/or miscarriages, it does feature a child dying of a contagious disease, in addition to sexual assault, pregnancy, and the death of a main character. These events happen purely because they carry an inherent emotional charge, yet the events themselves add nothing thematically to the plot. These complex and deeply serious matters are used as a lazy means of raising the emotional stakes, delivered without any sign of respect or thought.

And it all leads up to a cliffhanger ending that resolves precisely nothing. Yeah, this movie sucks.

Albert Nobbs is the kind of pretentious and emotionally shallow Oscar bait whose recognition gives the Oscars a bad name. The visuals are bland, the score is bland, and the screenplay is just plain awful. Glenn Close is giving her all, but the character is so terribly written and developed that it’s all for naught. Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, and Janet McTeer are all great to see, but their performances aren’t nearly enough to redeem this waste of time.

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