Caution: Some spoilers ahead.
Albert Nobbs is a passion project for Glenn Close. The actress first starred as the cross-dressing protagonist in the Broadway play in 1982 and has wanted to turn it into a feature film ever since. After securing financing last year, it came to fruition and the final product is well worth it.
Albert Nobbs is, by all appearances, a quiet and polite servant in an Irish hotel. But what his coworkers don’t know is that he’s a woman. Albert saves the money he makes and stows it carefully under a floorboard in his room. His life consists of work and dreaming about owning his own tobacco shop, while concealing his true identity, the one he’s successfully hidden for 30 years.
Until he meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Hubert is hired to paint a room in the hotel, and he has nowhere to sleep but with Albert Nobbs. Of course, Hubert finds out about Albert’s real identity and eventually discloses to him that he, Hubert, is also a woman. Instead of being scared of being found out any further, Albert is now intrigued to the point of obsession. Hubert tells Albert how he has found a wife and started his own painting business. He tells Albert that he can do the same.
Albert decides to woo his coworker, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), despite the fact she is in a relationship with another hotel worker, Joe (Aaron Johnson). What Albert doesn’t know is that Joe encourages Helen to go out with Albert and to have him buy her things like expensive liquor and chocolates. Helen does this and Albert obliges her, dreaming that they will open a shop together and be as happy as Hubert and his wife are together.
But when Tuberculosis spreads throughout Ireland, Hubert’s wife is affected and dies. The hotel guests clear out, afraid of getting TB themselves. Albert gets it but is able to survive. Also during this time, Helen becomes pregnant by Joe, and it becomes clear he has not interest in becoming a father. Helen, upset by Joe’s uncaring attitude, takes her anger out on Albert, laughing off his marriage proposal and making him feel more than foolish for asking.
Albert goes to Hubert to find out if he can move in with him and that they can open a business together, but Hubert is so distraught over losing his wife, he turns Albert away.
As to not ruin the ending, I won’t tell you what happens any further, but I will say that McTeer gives a solid performance as the stoic and strong Hubert. Her award nominations are well-deserved, as are Close’s for her innocent portrayal of a woman trying to get by as best she can in a world which, as a woman (after her caretakers passed away) she was living on the streets, eventually raped and beaten by men. Later, when she learns there are jobs for men in the hotel, she dresses in drag and applies. She gets the job and never leaves.
The question of this era is always this: Are they lesbians, or are they transgender? But this, of course, it not so simple. Their desire to have the lives of men does not necessarily mean they want to be men. But this also works for their desire to marry women. Perhaps they want to marry women because they are living as men, and not because they have sexual desire for them. It varies on an individual basis, which is clear in the film, as Albert and Hubert seem to have different motivations for their means of getting by. Albert is chastised by Helen for not wanting to kiss her. Hubert, on the other hand, is deeply in love with his wife and sees her as a lover as well as a partner. Albert does not seem to be romantically motivated.
These were very real issues for women in the early 20th century. Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness, is one of the best examples, as she preferred to dress and be seen as male. The protagonist in her novel was the same way, this being called “sexual inversion” at the time.
In a telling interview with IndieWire, McTeer said, “There were a lot of people who lived like this. One thing you have to remember in England that is different from over here is that sodomy, if you’re a guy, it’s illegal. You’d be kicked out of the country. There was nothing against lesbianism because Queen Victoria didn’t believe it existed.”
In the same interview, Close says, “Hubert is exactly who Hubert wants to be. He’s fine. He’s really happy. Sometimes I call him he, sometimes she… I think he thinks of himself as a him. I think he loves life. He’s got a great bounce. She loves laughing, she loves flirting, she’s incredibly happy.”
In a pivotal scene of the film, Hubert and Albert put on dresses and go out into the public. In these outfits, they look more in drag than they do in their everyday menswear. Hubert and Albert are happiest being themselves, which is to say they are happy to be women in men’s clothing, whatever that may mean.
The message behind Albert Nobbs can be summed up in this line delivered by Hubert: “Albert, you can be whoever you are.” You’ll just have to watch the entire film to see if that turns out to be true.
Albert Nobbs opens in New York Dec. 21 and in Los Angeles on Dec. 23. It will be in select theaters nationwide beginning January 27.