Albert Nobbs


Glenn Close shows off her dapper side.

Glenn Close shows off her dapper side.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, James Greene, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Phyllida Law, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Bronagh Gallagher, Rhys Burke, Laura Kinsella, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark Williams, Kenneth Collard, Judy Donovan. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

Woman Power

It is never easy being a woman (or so I surmise) but it was much harder in the 19th century than it is now. Opportunities for women back then were essentially limited to the husbands they could catch; if you happened to live in Ireland those opportunities were fewer still.

Albert Nobbs (Close) works as a waiter at a Dublin hotel just before the turn of the 20th century. Quietly efficient, he is appreciated for his efficiency, his unobtrusive service and of course his discretion. Even the hotel’s hypocritical owner, Mrs. Baker (Collins) feels kindly disposed towards him.

Albert hides a secret; beneath the starched high collar no Adam’s apple can be found; beneath the starched white shirt are a pair of womanly breasts rightly bound; beneath his perfectly pressed trousers no male member resides. He is a woman masquerading as a man, and successfully. Albert lives in quiet solitude in his small mean room in the employee quarters of the hotel. Beneath a board he hoards all the tips he’s received over a 15 year career. He is very close to his goal of 600 pounds; enough to buy a tobacconist’s shop where he’ll find the true independence he’s been longing for and when he makes enough money, selling the business and retiring to a seaside community.

His life is well-ordered and impeccably run; he knows what each guest needs before his guest knows it is needed. Albert rarely smiles because that would be out of place. That’s not to say that he has no friends although acquaintances would be the better word; the boisterous Dr. Holloran (Gleeson) and the tart-y chambermaid Helen (Wasikowska) socialize with him but don’t really know him. Nobody really does and Albert prefers it that way. Easier to keep his secret.

The hotel is a bit of faded glory and needs some sprucing up. The penurious Mrs. Baker realizes that in order to keep her customers she’ll need to do some maintenance and she hires Mr. Hubert Page (McTeer) to paint the hotel. It will be a fairly long job and so Mr. Page is made to bunk with Mr. Nobbs which doesn’t make Albert very happy. To his shock however, he discovers that he and Mr. Page have something in common – their gender.

Hubert has even gone so far as to marry Catherine (Gallagher), a truly winsome woman who not only knows Hubert’s secret but approves. Catherine is a dressmaker who keeps the two of them afloat when Hubert’s work dries up (in a manner of speaking). They make a fine team.

After Hubert’s job is completed, a new handyman is hired, Joe Mackin (Johnson). There’s not much good to say about Joe; he’s a drunk who can get violent when in his cups, he’s abusive particularly towards women and while devilishly handsome he isn’t particularly a go-getter. Of course Helen falls for him immediately.

Shortly after that a typhoid epidemic sweeps through Dublin, drying up business for the hotel and necessitating some changes. Hubert’s situation has convinced Albert that a good woman will be needed to help run his shop and he decides Helen would be perfect for that position. Not knowing that she is with someone, Albert tries courting her in a stiff and fumbling way. Joe finds out about it and encourages Helen to lead him on so that he might supply her with expensive gifts that he can sell and book passage for them both to America. The naive Albert doesn’t realize what’s going on. In such conditions, can he find his dream and even if he does, is that a sure way to happiness?

The undercurrents here are of sexual politics. The story began life as a novella by Irish author George Moore called The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs which may be found in his collection Celibate Lives if you’re interested in reading it. I get the sense that Nobbs makes a better man than most men which could well be a droll commentary on the state of manhood by Moore although I couldn’t swear to that explanation. I find it kind of comforting to think so however.

Close, who has championed this film for more than a decade, is one of the few actresses who can pull off the role without making a burlesque of it. She has the lower register vocally to make the illusion seem real and so complete is it that during a scene when she and McTeer dress up as women for a stroll along the beach, you almost could believe that they are a couple of men in drag, so awkward are they in the clothing of their own gender.

McTeer, who like Close was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 (making it the first time in Oscar history that two women pretending to be men were nominated for the same film), also makes the illusion seem real and while less time is spent on Hubert than on Albert, McTeer makes the role memorable and the relationships between Hubert and Catherine as well as Hubert and Albert believable.

There has been grumbling from some quarters that the film is a snide rip on the sexual politics of lesbians but I can only conclude that those making such claims haven’t seen the film. Neither Hubert nor Albert (whose real name we never discover) are sexually attracted to women and despite Albert’s pursuit Helen for matrimony, it’s more of a business arrangement for him. In fact, the whole masquerading as men thing is much more of an economic necessity for both of them rather than a conscious lifestyle choice. They’re just doing what they need to in order to survive.

While the pacing is a bit slow and the stiff dialogue and demeanor of the period may be excruciating for the impatient Generation Right Freaking Now, it’s still a movie well worth seeking out.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-worthy performance by Close. Wasikowska is lustrous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit stilted and slow.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, brief nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Close originated the role in a stage play based on the Moore novella. She won an Obie for her stage portrayal and lobbied for more than a decade to make a film out of it, which she eventually co-produced, co-wrote and received an Oscar nomination for her starring role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While commentary tracks are generally de rigueur on most major home video releases, the one here by Close and Garcia is extraordinary, with Close going into enough detail into the source material and how it differs from the film, casting and character backgrounds and into great detail in the making of the film. It’s one of the best I’ve heard yet.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $7.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Served the King of England

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Million Dollar Arm

So I Married an Axe Murderer


Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

(1993) Comedy (TriStar) Mike Myers, Nancy Travis, Anthony LaPaglia, Amanda Plummer, Alan Arkin, Brenda Fricker, Matt Doherty, Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Debi Mazar, Steven Wright, Patrick Bristow, Cintra Wilson, Luenell Campbell, Michael Richards, Michael G. Hagerty, Jessie Nelson, Bob Sarlatte, Ken Grantham, Greg Germann, Holly Lewis. Directed by Thomas Schlamme

Do we really know the person we’re closest to? After all, it’s very easy to create a facade of normalcy. We can say anything about ourselves and the person who loves us will believe us. After all, why should we lie?

Charlie McKenzie (Myers) is a San Francisco hipster who writes beat-like poetry by night and…well, we’re not quite sure what he does by day. He has been through one abortive relationship after another, each one ending with the terminally paranoid and commitment-phobic Charlie finding a reason to end things. His friend Tony Giardino (LaPaglia) urges him to loosen up but Charlie isn’t inclined to.

That is, until he meets Harriet (Travis) in a butcher shop and it’s chemistry at first sight. Things are going really well as they get to know each other and Charlie thinks at long last this might be the one. Even her little sister Rose (Plummer) is nice.

Then, Charlie is reading one of his mother’s (Fricker) Weekly World News papers (her sole source of news and information) and happens upon an article about Mrs. X, a woman whose three husbands have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances – as has she. The more Charlie reads, the more he realizes that the facts about Mrs. X happen to match up with those Harriet has let slip.

Suddenly Charlie is certain that Harriet is Mrs. X and ends things with her, not wanting to end up as the fourth husband – and victim. Tony is just as certain that his friend is a wacko who is inventing yet another excuse to avoid committing to another person, albeit the most bizarre excuse yet. Then when someone confesses to being Mrs. X in Texas (all our X’s are in Texas), Charlie realizes what a fool he’s been and at the anniversary party of his mother and father (Myers again) he proposes. Nothing but smooth sailing ahead, right?

This was Myers’ first film after the lucrative Wayne’s World established him as a movie star and it was a critical and commercial flop at the time. Over the years the opinion about this gem have been revised and now it has a bit of a cult following and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

While Charlie is pretty damn quirky, this is Myers’ most “normal” role to date and quite frankly I wish he’d do more of them. He is really likable as Charlie and has a terrific chemistry for Travis who is one of the more underrated actresses of the last 20 years, although she’s getting a regular paycheck these days on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing. Myers also does his Scottish eccentric role to perfection as Charlie’s dad. “Heed.. Newspaper. Now!” he bellows at his other son, the poor set-upon Doherty, lobbing bon mots at the oversized noggin of his son.

There are plenty of cameos ranging from Arkin as Tony’s way-too-sensitive captain and the late great Phil Hartman as a creepy park ranger at Alcatraz to Steven Wright as a laconic pilot and Charles Grodin as an uncooperative driver whose car is commandeered. The city of San Francisco is shown off as effectively as it has been in any recent movie – watch this one and you might just want to move there.

This is as charming a movie as Myers has done. He’d go on from here to the Austin Powers franchise and the Love Guru misstep but one look at this will convince you that even with the success he’s had he could have gone much farther if he’d continued on the road of movies like this. Sadly, the box office underperformance convinced him otherwise although Austin Powers fan might be happy enough that it did. This is one of those underappreciated comic gems of the 90s that may well have fallen below your radar; it’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it (and it has a fabulous soundtrack to boot).

WHY RENT THIS: One of Myers’ best. Underrated. Terrifically quirky and cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit dated and relies too much on shtick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some bad language, a bit of nudity, some sexual situations and what they called “mock terror.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Poet’s Corner Hotel scenes were filmed at the Dunsmuir estate which is actually in the Oakland hills east of San Francisco, not North of the city as depicted in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.6M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Haunted Honeymoon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Good Ol’ Freda

How About You


How About You

Hayley Atwell ponders how to hold her own with a quartet of aging scene-stealers.

(Strand) Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Orla Brady, Brenda Fricker, Imelda Staunton, Joan O’Hara, Elizabeth Moynihan, Darragh Kelly. Directed by Anthony Byrne

Some can accept the indignities of growing older with grace and dignity. Others rage against the dying of the light and in doing so, rage against life itself.

Kate Harris (Brady) runs the Woodlands, a nursing home in the quaint and charming countryside of Ireland as best she can. She is constantly on the edge of financial ruin and lives in terror of having her accreditation taken away from her, and is tormented by the unscheduled visits of a bureaucrat (Kelly) who seems hell-bent on finding an excuse to shut her down.

When family business forces her to leave over the Christmas holidays, she has no choice but to turn to her sister Ellie (Atwell) to run the joint while she is away. Ellie is a headstrong girl, one who brooks no crap from anyone which she at least has in common with Kate. However, where Kate is a by-the-book conformist, Ellie is spirited and anti-authoritarian. This deadly combination has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count and now, with nothing really to do and a fairly ambitious set of financial needs, she decides to help her sister out. After all, how hard could it be? Most of the residents had gone home with family members for the holiday, leaving only four people remaining.

Those four are about the most cantankerous, ill-tempered and difficult people you can imagine. There’s Georgia (Redgrave), a former actress who is an alcoholic with all the attitude of a diva. Donald (Ackland) is a widower who has lost his soulmate and takes out his pain on anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his orbit with a caustic wit worthy of Mort Sahl. The Nightingale sisters, Heather (Fricker) and Hazel (Staunton) moved into the home not because they needed the care but because after their mother died, they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Heather is a bit of a bully while Hazel harbors a terrible secret.

Ellie means well, but she often does the wrong thing for the right reasons, as with giving some marijuana to a dying resident (O’Hara) to ease her pain. She immediately butts heads with the four who are known, none too affectionately, as the Hard Core by the Woodlands staff. The four of them have alienated so many of the other residents that they have begun to leave in droves, which is the source of Kate’s near-ruin.

As Ellie stands up to the hi-jinx and imperious demands of the Hard Core, they begin to soften. For her part, Ellie begins to see things from a different perspective. Against all odds, they begin to bond. However a Christmas dinner and a surprise visit from the inspector may put an end to their impromptu family once and for all.

Those who loved serio-comic films like Ladies in Lavender or Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont will dig this big time. Like the other two films, the leads are elderly Brits with thick crusts that hide hearts of gold. While this is based on a short story by the Irish writer Maeve Binchy, it doesn’t break new ground in terms of films of this genre. There are a lot of cliches; naughty, crotchety elderly sorts who smoke pot, drink and curse, free-spirited mule-headed youngsters who learn to lower their defenses, mean bureaucrats who are revealed to have a reason for their anger. It’s all here, with a touch of Irish pipe music to remind us that it’s set in Ireland, and old standards to remind us that the leads are elderly.

However, the actors in the main roles are good enough that they help the movie rise above the material. Ackland, best known as the heavy in Lethal Weapon 2, delivers the kind of performance that those familiar with his stage career and some of his earlier work know that he’s capable of delivering. Redgrave exudes class and elegance, even in a role that sometimes demands its lack; she is magnificent here. Fricker and Staunton are two reliable veterans who are sadly underappreciated; they deliver solid performances here.

Any young actress would be hard-pressed to hold their own with a troupe like that, but Atwell does so, and more. Her Ellie is a bit of a screw-up, but mainly because she doesn’t have enough confidence in herself. She is hot-tempered and unpleasant at times but Atwell makes her so likable that we can’t help staying connected to her even when we want to reach out and smack her upside her head.

The title refers to a Burton Freed-Allen Lane standard that while written in 1941, had a version recorded in the early 60s by Bobby Darin which is the version that is heard here, which is appropriate since that more or less approximates the era of the main characters. The song has a vivid role in the movie which I appreciated as an old ex-rock critic – never underestimate the power of a song to change one’s life.

As I said, this isn’t really adding anything new to the genre but then again, who says it has to? It is very easy to sit back and allow yourself to be captivated by the performances and the magic of the Irish countryside. That, as far as I’m concerned, is two hours well spent.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by a cadre of veteran actors with whom Atwell more than holds her own. A bittersweet but upbeat treatise on growing old with or without dignity.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat predictable in places in terms of “eccentric oldsters changing the life of spirited young person” flicks.

FAMILY VALUES: Some extraordinarily salty language and a surprising amount of drug use so it’s probably not suitable for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Joss Ackland worked as a tea plantation manager in Africa during the 1950s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Unborn