Monday, April 15, 2024

The Curious Indifference of ‘Albert Nobbs’

I’ve been sitting at the computer for some time now, wondering why I’m so unswayed by the movie “Albert Nobbs,”which opens in many South Florida theaters Friday. Every time I lean ever so slightly toward praise or criticism, I’m pulled magnetically back to a waffly center of take-it-or-leave-it neutrality. This is never an envious position for a critic, whose job is to take an unwavering, chiseled-in-marble stance on a movie. Nice, passable films like this one fail to light any fires.

By its premise alone, “Albert Nobbs” suggest a more radical response: The title character (Glenn Close) is a woman who has transformed herself into a man in 19thcentury Dublin. A fragile, androgynous transgender long before the term existed, she’s toiling as a waiter at a renowned hotel, her secret unbeknownst to the bustling staff and rotating clusters of well-heeled guests. Sex is never a consideration in her life; the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager accounts for her repressive disguise as a man. She only dreams of opening her own tobacco shop and maybe taking a wife one day, despite the little problem of her own fractured gender.

The story dates back both to a novella by the Irish writer George Moore, and an avant-garde theatrical production of the tale – which also starred Glenn Close as Albert – from 1982. The new film version carries with it a cocktail of sources and influences, with these earlier incarnations inspiring a story by the well-known Czech director Istvan Szabo (“Sunshine,” “Mephisto”) and direction from Rodrigo Garcia, a Columbian-born filmmaker of sensitive women’s pictures including “Nine Lives” and “Mother and Child.” This results in the piece carrying a multigenerational, multinational pedigree.

The mechanics of “Albert Nobbs’” plot – involving Albert’s liaisons with Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a hotel staffer also courting a newly hired handyman with eyes on Albert’s cache of savings – are less important than the film’s implicit nature. Its gender-bending nature chafes boldly against the heritage-movie gentility of the period setting, giving voice to an unexplored underbelly of a society that wasn’t ready – maybe still isn’t ready, in some circles – to accept it (without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that Albert isn’t the only character with a gender identification secret).

The problem is, the movie isn’t bold enough, steering me once again to the mushy middle. Even when a convenient rash of typhoid fever lurches the narrative toward tragic consequences, and even when major characters suffer fatal, heartbreaking blows, I was left emotionally vacant. Szabo and Garcia never dive headlong into Albert’s condition (or the interesting back story of the other transgender character, for that matter), remaining at arm’s length rather than exploring, for instance, the characters’ dressing protocols, or the writing in their brains that make them who they are. We’re left with pretty good performances in an unobjectionable movie, and that’s just about the most passionate response you’ll get from me.

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