ALBERT NOBBS: What does it mean to be a woman in Victorian Ireland?

 

I enjoy watching movies, mostly because of the sheer entertainment I get out of them, which is what, I suspect, why most people watch movies. I have to confess a partiality to Zip! Zap! Zoom! movies with lots of action or lots of mystery or both. I won’t watch movies that are violent for the sake of violence, so you’ll never see a review of the Saw movies nor will you hear about Freddy Kruger and his ilk. Many times, I will or won’t watch a movie because of the cast. You just know that movies with certain actors or actresses in them will be good. One such actor—or actress, in this case—that I would watch is Glenn Close, who is up there on my list with Meryl Streep. Ms. Close seems to like to take on roles with a special challenge in them, roles that push the envelope, in a manner of speaking.

As the character Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close has, once again, challenged our ideas of what is usual. She plays a woman who has chosen to pretend to be a man just so she can get a job that helps her survive through an economically depressed Ireland during the Victorian Era. She has kept up the pretense for nearly 40 years so that everyone believes she is a man. Albert’s one driving ambition is to eventually open his own tobacconist shop and saves every farthing he makes from tips and hides his money under a floor board in his room. He believes he is content with his life and seeks nothing more until he meets the painter Hubert Page, who turns out to be another woman like him. Befriending Hubert, he finds that Hubert has a wife who is a milliner, and they live together in a cozy home where the wife keeps shop. Albert now dreams of having a wife as well, who will share his dreams, and sets his sights on the pretty Helen Dawes. Helen, however, is a bit of a flirt and has set her sights on Joe Macken, who plots to convince Albert to fund his desire to migrate to America and uses Helen to get at Albert’s money. Before long, Helen finds herself pregnant and Albert is desperate because he has also promised Helen he will take care of her but doesn’t really want the burden of a wife and child. Meanwhile, Hubert loses his wife to typhoid fever, which nearly takes Albert as well. When Albert finds that Hubert is alone, he proposes a partnership, not realizing that Hubert was truly in love with his wife. This realization pushes Albert to reassess his feelings and he realizes that he now dreams of Helen as his wife and takes more active steps to assure there that he will care for and love her and her child, convincing her that Joe has no intentions of bringing her to America with him. When confronted, Joe becomes violent and Albert is fatally hurt in the process. As fate would have it, Helen meets Hubert again and tells him of her plight. Hubert sees this as a way of both helping Albert achieve his dream and rebuilding his own family life.

Insofar as acting is concerned, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, who plays Hubert Page, are perfectly convincing in their roles. You know, in the back of your mind, that they are women, yet you see them as men in the story and sympathize with them as men. Or is it that you empathize with them because they are women and you understand that? The characters are solid, well-developed characters that gave us an excellent picture of the working class in Victorian Ireland. The sets and costumes were impeccable. Overall, an outstanding film production.

What makes this stand out more is the brilliance of the story. Not many movies make you think…and this one made me think for several days before I could even begin to write anything about it. I think that is the mark of a brilliant script. The story makes us ask questions: What was life really like for the working class in Ireland? This is a class that is rarely represented. We are familiar with the problems farmers had as well as the general poor. We are familiar with the upper crust, but we hear very little about the working class—people in service industries. Did women really have to disguise themselves as men just to find or keep certain jobs? What was it like for transgender people? What sort of lives did they live? Did having to pretend to be men eventually change the women so that they eventually thought and felt like men? Or is it a latent homosexuality that is only brought out by extreme and extenuating circumstances?

What is probably more significant is that the movie comes at a time when same sex marriages are once again at the forefront of moral and social issues. Recent actions by religious groups have us thinking about individual rights and freedom. The movie shows us that same sex marriages can work and that they are no less human than heterosexual marriages. Beyond that, the movie makes us ask if such relationships should be ostracized or, worse, condemned. In situations where heterosexual relationships fail, is it not possible that a same sex relationship might actually succeed? Moreover, how much more different—or difficult—is it for women than it is for men?

That the movie has come out at this time is timely. That is has come out at all is revolutionary. It will definitely make us question gender roles and relationships and perhaps look at a new order of things.

-30-

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