Sunday, January 29, 2012
“Albert Nobbs”: What’s Your Disguise?
“I am just a waiter, sir,” Albert answers deferentially.
“And I am just a doctor,” the doctor replies. “Both of us are disguised as ourselves.”
“Albert Nobbs” would be easy to pigeonhole as a film about gender. Its cross-dressing heroine hides a traumatic past, revealed near the end of the film but written on her tight, controlled face from the opening scene. That and the fact that Albert likes women make “Albert Nobbs” an appropriate subject in any discussion about sexual preference, gay marriage, or gender politics.
But director Rodrigo Garcia, working from a script by Close and John Banville, is aiming for something deeper, I think, and this is what touches me about the film. The exchange between Albert and the doctor at the costume ball points to the challenge of feeling completely at home in one’s own skin, fully accepting the gift of our unique personhood. Why is it so hard to take off my disguise? Is my disguise in fact myself?
Close received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Albert, but if this film deserves a statuette it is for Janet McTeer’s “Best Supporting” role as Hubert Page, another woman in man’s clothing. Close’s character is bound tight by her disguise, and the film teeters on the edge of tragedy as Albert tries to break loose. A scene near the end in which she does so feels forced, however, largely because you can’t take your eyes off McTeer’s Hubert Page.
McTeer is 6 feet 1 inch tall. Close stands a full 8 inches shorter. The contrast is just as striking in close-up. Close’s masklike manface is a masterpiece of make-up art; McTeer’s face, less painted, more free, is extraordinary, especially in scenes where she does little more than listen to Albert.
As played by McTeer, Hubert is not just a happy, cross-dressing lesbian. S/he is a fulfilled if not always happy person, with a heart as big and as human as your own.