History is peppered with stories of women who masqueraded as men: the fabled “Pope Joan,” who supposedly rose to the throne of the church in the dark ages; Margaret Ann Bulkley, who lived as James Bulkey, and became surgeon in the British Army who served in India and South Africa; and Billy Tipton, born Dorothy, who was a popular jazz musician and bandleader in the United States.
These women were probably not “transgender” in the sense we understand today, but likely carried out these elaborate charades to obtain education and advance in careers limited to men.
In her new film, Albert Nobbs, opening in South Florida theaters this weekend, Glenn Close portrays a woman, passing as a man in 19th century Dublin, in a performance that will raise much more complicated questions about gender identity than mere survival in a male-dominated world. This is no Victor/Victoria or Tootsie, however.
The diminutive, asexual Nobbs is a butler at a posh Dublin hotel. Trained—and perfectly content—to disappear into his surroundings, except when a bell summons him to his well-to-do guests (aristocratic playboy Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and sympathetic physician Brendan Gleeson). All the while, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) maintains a tight reign on her fiefdom, somewhat oblivious to some of the upstairs-downstairs shenanigans going on under her nose.
Albert’s routine is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of the cocky Hubert Paige (Janet McTeer), temporarily hired to paint the hotel and assigned to share Nobbs’s room. When Albert’s secret is accidentally revealed, Paige makes a shocking revelation of his own that sets Albert’s very notion of existence on end. It seems he too is a “she,” having taken his act one step further and taken a wife (Bronagh Gallagher), living as a married couple.
This is where Albert’s character becomes much more complicated. We learn he was assaulted as a young girl and took a job as a waiter at 14, completely compartmentalizing the pain he felt as a girl. He has accepted his new life so completely that he yearns to take a wife, just as his new friend has done. The object of his desire is the cheeky young chamber maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who would rather sleep with the hotel’s handsome young boilerman, Joe (Aaron Johnson).
The Victorian world in which all exist is stiff, but one of the lightest moments of the film occurs as Nobbs ponders when the most appropriate time to reveal his “condition” – before the wedding or after.
Director Rodrigo Garcia creates a bustling, realistic period picture of Dublin, with excruciating attention to the details of the hotel and its shops, further accentuated by painstakingly researched costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud that perfectly delineate the social divides between the aristocratic guests and their common servants.
McTeer, Wasikowska and Johnson and the supporting cast are all spot on, as they struggle to survive and deal with misfortunes ranging from an outbreak of yellow fever, abuse and Helen’s unplanned pregnancy that threatens to dash Joe’s dream of a new beginning for the couple in America.
But it’s Close’s performance that is unsettling from the start. The actress originated the role in an off-Broadway play nearly three decades ago, and collaborated with writers Gabriella Prekop and John Banville on the screenplay. Every move she makes on screen is premeditated and deliberate, but, at every turn, it is also still hard to see Albert Nobbs beyond Glenn Close. It’s always Glenn Close on screen. She is a caricature of herself, even as she so wholeheartedly tackles this intriguing, if murky character.
In any case, the film, with its universal themes of love and acceptance, is certain to fuel deep thought about gender identity both in history and in contemporary society.
Opening Jan. 27 at The Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale,
Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables and other theaters
Check local listings for show times