Let me begin with an acknowledgement of the limits of my opinion. I have not read the short story by George Moore that is the ultimate source of the story of Albert Nobbs. Nor have I read script or watched the play as adapted from the short story by Simone Bermussa. So all my criticism is limited to the movie by the same name.
I was invited to see the movie by a friend and so I went. This I state as one of my list of acceptable reasons for going to watch the movie before having read the book! Of course I tried to find a copy of the original short story or the screenplay for the play in my local library (yes, I knew this to be a long shot; but thems the rules) and on the internet but failed on both counts. I was excited to watch the movie because it had Glen Close in it, which at least meant that the character would be saved from two-dimensional banality (I hoped) and because I would learn something about 19th century Ireland. I was to be somewhat disappointed on both counts.
The movie takes the stance that it is telling the story of a woman who dressed and lived as a man in order to survive 19th century Dublin. Albert Nobbs is a butler in a hotel and telling his story opens the door for viewing the stories of working class struggle as well as particular personal relationships. The movie mostly tells the story of a moment in Albert’s life where his options are changed by the presence and actions of one Hubert Paige. And the storytelling is at times compelling and at others spectacularly misses any chance of resonance (or rocket launchers!). So there were parts that I loved and parts that annoyed me and a whole lot that I could have just done without. This in spite of an impressive ensemble of actors with the capacity to play complexity any way it’s written. How did that happen? I have a theory (this brings me up to two Joss references in one post, ain’t I awesome?!) …
To me this was a story about a complex person in a complicated and complex situation. And trying to be reductive with gender, sexuality, class and desire is a pretty good recipe for disaster. So in some ways the movie was excellent in that it wasn’t a disaster, it just did nothing and no one justice.
Albert was introduced as a butler (performing masculinity) and then revealed to have breasts (essentially female). He introduced himself as Albert (even when he was asked his ‘real’ name) and seemed to have made a decision after a clumsily portrayed attempt to clothe himself in and perform femininity. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough of Albert showing us his story. Which kind of made sense because he was very much coming to grips with his own self. But the eye of the film-makers was not neutral. Every time there was an opportunity to delve into gender, the film shifted its eyes towards drama. Which works once, but then feels like a cop out. Mr.Paige’s story gave Albert hope and opened up questions… but these questions weren’t answered or even really asked by the film. I guess what I’m saying is this: I don’t need Albert to ask these questions, his character was shown to be quiet and hesitant; the filming on the other hand was assured and shouldn’t have run away from posing the questions as well as exploring the answers.
Albert Nobbs transgressed gender. Which is to say that he did not fit the neat boundaries created around him for gender roles and presentation. I don’t know exactly what brought him to the life he led. But I do know that to suggest that his decision was solely about his desire to gain access to better pay and less trauma can only ever be one aspect of his truth. There is safety in constructing a different time where the rights of women were so compromised that only living as a man gave them any level of freedom. This is a story often told not just about a different time but also a different place. It’s a nice way to tell ourselves that we should feel lucky to live in the time and place that we do, and that decisions about gender are nothing but a pragmatic means to an end.
Neither the story of Albert nor the treatment of it by the writers and actors is singular. And I mean that in the opposite-of-plural sense of the word. Throughout history there have been stories of people defining, redefining and sculpting gender until it meets their needs. And throughout the same time there have been people desperately trying to maintain the hierarchy and safety of a defined binary. And I have not the least intention of defining the gender or sexuality of anyone else, but this makes me very suspicious of storytellers who tell the tales of women living as men and leave out the story of everyone else.
Perhaps this is a limitation of fiction, it is only as good as the biases of the writers. Which is really to say that the writers in this case were limited in their fiction writing and truth-telling and their biases tended towards the status-quo banality. Life is usually more inventive. All this to say… if you haven’t seen the movie, I would suggest that you do, if only so we can talk and you tell me what you thought!