‘Albert Nobbs’: “A Woman Passing…” or Succeeding in a Cruel World

ALBERT NOBBS is the story of a man. Is it? Is that what matters? The film is summarized as follows on the film’s official web-page: “Award winning actress Glenn Close plays a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland.” This is true, simple. Still, throughout the film, Nobbs gives quiet insight into why he presents himself as a man, giving no hint of regret about his choice. The pronoun is “he,” because that is the life he chose within the cultural context he developed. We learn that Albert was neglected, abused, not educated extensively, and, at a young age, was gang raped. The “she” represents all that is vulnerable: “she” grew strong by becoming Albert Nobbs, so who are audience members to question pronoun usage or naming? The “she” was reformed into something conceivably stronger and more worthy of respect, due to circumstance, but it was still a choice of sorts, which gives Albert power and control.

The choice was life or death, much like any other gender presentation: there is the self that lives in this formed presentation of the body or the self that dies, a victim of the perceptions that come along with that body. Close plays this strong, quiet, masculine character with such self-control that we believe her edgy composure to be truly on the brink of breakage, in a composed body that others would certainly see as an disgraceful lie, because women are bodies to be blamed.

The film has been nominated for Academy Awards in three categories: Actress in a Leading Role (Close), Actress in a Supporting Role (Janet McTeer), and for makeup (as one would expect, as it was absolutely jolting). This movie is special in the film world because it contains a non-sexualized, refined image of women (and I use this term very openly). It is a self-controlled portrait of the female body/mind consciously taking on a masculine form, if only to survive in a man’s world.

In New York Magazine, David Edelstein explained that since he doesn’t think “Eros enters into the question,” the film is not a gay film. Further, he explains that it is “more a matter of Albert and Hubert’s (McTeer) finding somewhere safe in a society that treats all poor people badly but poor women worse.” Is a gay character still gay if they don’t have sex? Does the reason for a woman presenting as a man make her gender presentation any less what it seems? Edelstein’s P.O.V in this section is a bit simplistic, though the review was spot-on in aesthetics, and I don’t disagree with his point. It just is not enough. The movie is quite queer and quite complicated, like gender and love- which so often work together to make fascinating, gripping stories for the screen. Albert Nobbs is about Albert, a man to most, fearful and alone, but, if not other things -marries, in love, with children- he is safe from a society that had no respect for women as individuals. Albert made the rules, with his body.

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