She first played this role off-Broadway, and has been attempting to bring it to the big screen ever since. It’s easy to see, as an artist, why she was so eager to push the envelope, creatively, for this role – she plays a woman playing a man, in 19th century Ireland. And she’s quite convincing. But as for those who enjoy the movies for light, engaging, modern entertainment – they’ll stay away in droves.
Albert Nobbs is the name that she chose after she survived a brutal personal attack. She decided to “become” a man so she could find work as a waiter in a bed and breakfast in Dublin. So, year, after stultifying year, “Mr. Nobbs” dresses up in a tux every day and serves the patrons, gratefully accepting their farthing or ha’penny or shilling tip, until, after furtively hiding her stash under a floorboard every night – she finally has enough to do something else with her life – but what?
What little social contact she has is with the rest of the house staff. She’s always reserved and formal. She rarely speaks unless spoken to, and even then, she has little to say. She’s lived her life in deferential mode, lowering her eyes and looking away and lowering her expectations for herself. Apparently jobs were so scarce in Ireland at the time that usually only the men were hired, because they had families to raise. (Yes, the feminist movement is bubbling under the surface. And there’s more.)
Mr. Nobbs suddenly finds himself embarrassed by being asked to share a bed with an itinerant painter, Mr. Page, and she’s terrified that her carefully guarded secret is going to be exposed. And yet she’s in for a few surprises of her own, because Mr. Page is also a woman, even more successfully impersonating a man (sorry, Ms. Close). But now something even more dangerous has been awakened in “Mr. Nobbs” than mere desire for personal freedom – now she wants to think about sexuality, and yes, marriage, and joint property, and these are dangerous thoughts for her, because they involve making herself emotionally vulnerable, and risking being hurt, when all this time she had so successfully shut herself down, emotionally.
The problem is that Mr. Nobbs, after so long as an asexual being, hardly knows where to begin with anyone. She’s confused about her own identity, and seems to be in an urgent hurry to bring it to some resolution, even if circumstances appear to recommend caution. She’s tired of being cautious. It has gotten her nowhere.
Mia Wasikowska plays a meaningful support role, and Janet McTeer, as Mr. Page, is so convincing that she practically steals the show. And yet, at the end, there is no happily ever after, only sorrow heaped upon sorrow, and the epitome of a life lived in quiet desperation, which will hardly thrill most moviegoing audiences.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.