Skin Deep, by David Bax
Conversations taking place around the subject of Rodrigo Garcia’s new film, Albert Nobbs, tend to concern first and foremost the issue of Glenn Close’s “transformation.” Given the film’s release date, period setting and subject matter, it’s definitely angling for awards, with Close’s portrayal of a woman passing as a man in order to get by leading the campaign for your consideration.
Unfortunately, there’s not much of a transformation going on here; or at least not a very convincing one. It’s not that the makeup is unconvincing or any such cosmetic problem. It’s that the character of Albert (or whatever his given name is; we never find out) is too unbelievable. There’s not nearly enough substance to convince us that Albert is a real person, let alone one that could pass as male under so many other characters’ noses.
Albert is a waiter and a member of the staff at a hotel in Ireland in the mid to late 1800’s. He has been quietly and efficiently performing his duties there for years, saving up a small fortune under the floorboards of his quarters. He’s preparing for some sort of retirement, though it’s not clear what his specific plans are. When the hotel’s owner hires someone to paint the interiors (Janet McTeer as Hubert Page), Albert discovers a fellow traveler of sorts. Upon learning that Hubert lives with a wife in a home of his own, Albert’s future suddenly has focus. He undertakes to woo one of the hotel’s maids (Mia Wasikowska as Helen Dawes) but is stymied by her infatuation with a young drifter (Aaron Johnson as Joe).
Those characters named above should provide for a rich tapestry, fleshing out the world and supporting Close’s performance. They don’t, though, as each of them can be summed up in a couple words; Assured and rakish, immature and willful, dodgy and self-centered. We learn everything there is to know about them within their first few minute of screen time.
Partially, this is the fault of the screenplay, by Close and John Banville. Mostly, though, the blame goes to Garcia’s suffocating and amateurishly earthbound staging. There is an awkwardness reminiscent of community theater in the ways he directs his performers to move and to act. With the exception of Brendan Gleeson (who probably was afforded more freedom given his relatively minor role), no member of the cast is able to break free of Garcia’s restrictive hold the way Annette Bening so marvelously did in the filmmaker’s last effort, Mother and Child.
Still, the film is primarily the story of Albert and so the reasons for its failure must boil down to him. He is an inexplicably dim character. Close gives us no insight, either as writer or actor, into why he is so unschooled in the ways of the world. Instead of engaging us in the story of his attempts to be both a woman and a man – which would be both dramatically and intellectually intriguing – the film frustrates us by depicting a simpleton’s struggle to get by in the world without ever acknowledging how simple he is.
As usual, it is to Garcia’s credit that the women in his film are allowed to be many more things than in most other works, which are happier to compartmentalize them. In other words, the women in his movies are not defined first and foremost by their being women, unless they as characters choose to be. This uncommonly humanist approach to the portrayal of femininity is a beacon, even while it exists in an envelope of mediocrity.
In addition to Gleeson’s performance, the production design/art direction team must be applauded for creating a lovely yet lived-in approximation of the period in general and the hotel in particular. Sadly, they did so in service of a story much flatter than its aesthetic surroundings.