It’s been a very long time since we’ve had the honor of seeing Glenn Close command the big screen front-and-center. If not for Damages, her starring, 5-time Oscar-nominated work would seem like a different life. For over a decade her career has been overrun with guest roles and being only one of many in ensemble pieces. Though she often commands these small glimpses, especially in indie films like Heights and The Safety of Objects, the Close we once knew – offering mainstream fatal attractions, dangerous liaisons, Shakespeare and newspapers – has been dormant ... until now. Under the eye of oft-collaborator Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Nine Lives) Close thrives as scribe and star of Albert Nobbs, elevating a period piece about gender and class into wonderfully heartfelt and complex work.
Close stars as Albert Nobbs, a woman in 19th century Dublin who has spent almost all of her life posing as a man. She works as a meticulous butler for a modest inn, so fastidiously focused on her gender performance that she barely laughs and never emotionally connects with her peers. Nobbs lives and sleeps her work, the skilled hand that never fails because it consumes all of her focus. But when a few new Dubliners come into her life, Nobbs begins to actively yearn and strive for an escape from her stringent life: one is a charismatic painter who discovers her secret and tempts her with life’s possibilities; the other (Aaron Johnson), is a desperate young man willing to do anything to make a better life for himself in America.
Pleasingly, this doesn’t play out as Hollywood has taught us to expect – a story with tumultuous love and a man so eager for advancement that he’d ruin a woman to get it. However, that's not to suggest that the film plays out blandly. There is danger and drama that rises to an inevitable climax, but it does so without a direct man v. woman dichotomy, without a foreboding pressure of male domination. As such, Albert Nobbs can relish in Close's, exacerbated by a camera that visualizes her internal everyday struggle – the solitary chair she sits in at the end of the hall, ready to serve and work, or the door in an empty shop that becomes the symbol for her liberation, one image that holds all of her hopes and desires.
This is, at once, both classically demanding and commanding Close and her gentile antithesis. Her fierceness is present in her determined stare and firm jaw – all of the strict rigidity Nobbs requires to keep her secret. At the same time, every glimpse of Nobbs exudes an element of innocence and softness, one that becomes increasingly apparent as she allows herself to truly think and plan for a life outside her daily lie. This isn’t feminine softness, but rather the naiveté of youth trapped in an old body; because of her daily performance, she never really had a chance to evolve and become a full human being. She knows her job inside and out, but she has no idea how to genuinely interact in the world – how to fall in love and have a real life.
And this poses her biggest problem. As Nobbs steps closer to release and freedom, she also steps closer to danger. In her desire to live a successful life and not be alone, she desires a young maid (Mia Wasikowska) who is in love with the America-bound young man. He manipulates the girl into getting gifts and finery from Nobbs, who is so out of the loop interpersonally that she doesn’t notice. She doesn't recognize the signs and mannerisms that are blatantly obvious to us. And when the crescendo hits as all of these people dramatically collide, it does so in a way that’s almost tender, in a way that's utterly fitting of the life Nobbs led until that point.
This is Rodrigo Garcia at his directorial best, taking his thoughtful treatment of women’s stories and one of his best collaborators, and leaving behind his habit of interlocking stories of vastly different people. His vision is wonderfully narrowed, letting each female character play off each other and symbiotically work together rather than separately swim in circles without really connecting.
The film and Nobbs herself are a wonderful surprise – something that looks one way, but holds many wonderful secrets itching to be released.