There is something supremely unsettling about Glenn Close’s performance in Albert Nobbs, and not just because she plays a woman pretending to be a man in director Rodrigo Garcia’s Dublin-set 1930s period piece, or that she required virtually no makeup to physically pull it off.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes Close’s strangle feat of Oscar bait acting so excruciatingly fingers-down-the-blackboard. It’s an essentially quaint role — at least on paper — that somehow manages to assault the senses like battery acid poured over the palette. Many variables shape Close’s mild-mannered performance as a butler who dreams of starting a business into something scary and spectral, a yeti from a sister world of awards-hungry circus freaks.
Her androgynous looks; her quiet, quivering, seesaw voice; her disabled puppy dog pouts and a countenance of fear, confusion and intangible introspection — Albert Nobbs resembles, like a colleague of mine observed after a screening, “a robot sent from the future to kill Glenn Close,” which is a description as apt as any.
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Taking on this role was certainly a bold choice — Close would have felt, well, close to it, having played the same part in a theatre production more than two decades ago — but the result is something eerily unhuman, like a post-op Michael Jackson reincarnation or the Robin Williams robot in Spielberg’s AI. Through a smog of airy artifice the character’s emotional projections plummet into nothingness.
The audience are barely introduced to Nobbs, whose gender is a closely guarded secret, before she is asked share a bed with a man and thus her secret is unveiled in the first ten minutes — probably a good thing given the trailer gives it away in about 30 seconds. The man who spots her vows to maintain the secret, but shortly after a strange thing happens: he unbuttons his shirt, exposing a fulsome pair of knockers. 1930s Dublin, it seems, was rife with cross-dressing butlers.
Garcia belts away on a message about class divide and upper crust snobbery from the get-go, throwing into the blender prejudice of gender (plus prejudice of what psychologists may refer to as the Tootsie/Mrs Doubtfire syndrome) to seemingly create the mother of all period piece tsk-tsking. The film is a collection of clumsy confected dramas and sub-plots, spanning Nobbs’ wish to marry a pretty maid (Mia Wisakowska) embroiled in a relationship with a drunkard, her desire to open a tobacconist “with sweetmeats and a counter for other things” and her grappling of the whole “not a man but pretending to be” thing.
A snowflake machine whirs into gear at the perfect cheesy moment after a dramatic encounter in a park…two women pretending to be men dressed up as women (?) run along the beach…Yup — the proverbial bullshit buzzer pounds the ears of every vaguely discerning filmgoer throughout Albert Nobbs. How Garcia, Close and co managed to drain the film of any inspiration — not to mention presenting a protagonist as an asylum seeker from another world, impossible to relate with and presumably fixed on a diet of golden statuettes, whizzing between planets in the hope of picking one up and moving on — is deserving of an award itself. An award named after a small red fruit.
Albert Nobbs’ Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2011.