Despite picking up two Oscar nominations for leading star Glenn Close and British actress Janet McTeer, it’s taken until April for Rodrigio Garcia’s Albert Nobbs (2011) to finally get a cinematic release here in the UK. Adapted from – and shackled to – the 1980s off-Broadway play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, Garcia’s big screen version comes equipped with a promising cast, a gender-swapping lead performance and a strong sense of period, set as it is in 19th century Ireland. So why then is it so completely underwhelming?
After famously playing the role on stage thirty years ago, US actress Close once again stars as the titular Albert Nobbs, a loyal, unassuming butler who lives and works within Dublin’s Morrison’s Hotel. What separates Nobbs from the other male servants is that he is in fact a she, a woman who has taken on the persona of a man in order to find what scarce work she could, dragging herself out of poverty one shilling at a time. Nobbs’ secret seems safe until the arrival of painter-for-hire Mr. Hubert (McTeer), who also conceals a secret of his own.
So far, so Dickens. Close’s Nobbs is undeniably a sympathetic lead, though ‘engaging’ would perhaps be taking things a bit too far, so insular is the film’s central character, only revealing internal machinations via a number of ill-fitting, overtly stagy soliloquies. The film’s theatrical tone is ultimately its one great undoing, and even the most ardent admirer of Close’s inescapable talent may be hard-pushed to substantiate this most uncinematic of stage-to-screen adaptations.
The ensemble supporting cast, featuring Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Brendan Gleeson in its ranks, is similarly very much a mixed bag. Only McTeer’s roguish Mr. Hubert comes close to equalling the on-screen draw of Close, with the faltering romance between angelic maid Helen (Wasikowska) and uncouth handyman Joe (Johnson) seemingly lifted straight from an episode of Upstairs Downstairs (or, for a more contemporary slant, ITV’s Downtown Abbey).
Whilst an admirable stab at Close’s much-vaunted ‘labour of love’, there’s not much to enjoy about Albert Nobbs minus a stout central performance and some impressive costume design. Gender-swapping, whether on stage or screen, is nothing new – and neither, sadly, is this clunky, 30-years-in-the-making adaptation.