The Tragedy of Albert Nobbs

My response to the film “Albert Nobbs,” was originally posted on the In Our Words blog. You can read my article below, but I recommend visiting IOW for more queer perspectives on social, cultural, and political issues!

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Spoiler alert: My reflection on this film includes a discussion of the whole film, beginning to end, and so if you plan to see it and want to be surprised, stop reading.

The film “Albert Nobbs” tells the story of Albert (Glenn Close), a woman who lives her life as a man in 19th century Ireland. Albert works as a waiter in a hotel and lives unassumingly with the other wait-staff, including Helen, a feisty, somewhat “boy crazy” blonde (played by Mia Wosikowska). Behind the safety of his bedroom door, we see Albert bind his breasts and obsessively count his coins, which he stores under a loose floorboard. Albert seems content with his life, but Close’s dreamy gaze into the distance tells us he wants more.

Enter Hubert Paige (Janet McTeer), a hot butch painter that makes all the women of the film weak at the knees. He’s hired to paint some of the rooms of the house and is told to stay overnight in Albert’s room so he can finish the next day. In a series of unfortunate events, Hubert discovers that Albert is a woman. Later the next day, to ease Albert’s worried mind, Hubert reveals that he too is a woman living as a man.  [1] In fact, Albert learns, Hubert is even married to a woman.

Hubert becomes a sort of pre-internet It Gets Better project for Albert. Albert is suddenly not alone. He has a role model. A role model that proves that he could live a “normal” life, which, for Albert means: 1) getting married to a woman, and 2) owning his own tobacco shop. Feeling immediately and urgently inspired, Albert asks the young Helen to “walk out” with him. At first she says no, since she’s already started sleeping with a new hotel hire, Joe Mackins. However, Joe wants to go to America and thinks Albert has a “whiff of money about him”—so he encourages Helen to go on dates with Albert in order to get gifts, and eventually money. Helen agrees, and although she seems distressed by this manipulation, she continues.

The unfolding of this plot is slow and awkward at best, weird and uninteresting at worst. However, the unremarkable quality of the film-making is less offensive to me than the framing of the gender non-conforming protagonists. You see, the reason Albert and Hubert are living their lives as men comes from a similar experience—their “root,” if you will, is that they were both abused by men. Hubert, as a woman, was married to a man who physically beat him, and Albert was gang raped. Of course. If Hollywood isn’t telling us that the only reason queers are queer is because they were “born this way,” it’s because of a brutal tragedy.

It’s also never entirely clear if Albert is actually attracted to women. Hubert and his wife are playful and flirtatious, but Albert’s dates with Helen are excruciatingly awkward. Albert’s entire approach to dating—and to his future—is portrayed as being dim and out-of-touch. I’m guessing the filmmakers were hoping this would encourage the audience to see Albert and “sweet and innocent,” but I was mostly annoyed that he was making such stupid decisions.

This ambiguous sexuality is highlighted when, after Hubert’s wife dies of typhoid, Albert proposes that he and Hubert live together and open up his fantasy tobacco shop. Albert suggests he could take the place of Hubert’s late wife. Hubert is horrified that Albert doesn’t realize that his wife can’t be “replaced,” and in response, he takes Albert to his wife’s closet and shows him her dresses. In the next scene, Albert and Hubert walk to the sea, adorned in the dresses from her closet. Both look uncomfortable, but when Albert arrives on the beach, he runs wild and ecstatic, arms waving, dress blowing, smile across his face. He seems free, until he trips on his dress and tumbles to the sand.

This is supposed to be a metaphor for something, I’m sure, but for what exactly, I’m not so sure. Is Albert happier as a woman? Or did the fall indicate that he’s not? When they get back to Hubert’s house and change into men’s clothes, Hubert reminds Albert that “you don’t have to be anything but who you are.”

I think this was supposed to be a really powerful, poignant moment in the film, but it was lost beneath Albert’s almost inhuman personality, and the dress metaphor-fail in the scene prior.

As I sat in the theater, sharing confused glances with my fellow queer media studies colleague, I thought maybe my puzzlement was a testament to the film’s ability to handle the complexity of gender non-conforming lives, especially over a hundred years ago. Perhaps the incoherence of these characters was actually really brilliant, and I was just doing the very un-queer move of trying to make sense of something that wasn’t supposed to be made sense of.

That moment of forgiveness lasted about five minutes—because the end the film brought with it the tired trope of queer death. Like the queers of Hollywood Oscar-nominated hits that came before, Albert dies a tragic death, joining the likes of Hilary Swank, Heath Ledger, Tom Hanks and Sean Penn. Nothing like a dead queer to teach us all a lesson about humanity, right? And what better way to honor that exploited figure than to award a straight actor for playing it so well!

In her book The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed reminds us that early depictions of queer life in media (starting originally with pulp lit), was only permitted “on the condition that it does not have a happy ending, as such an ending would ‘make homosexuality attractive’” (p.88). Since the first lesbian pulp novel in 1952, it appears little has changed. Ahmed runs through a long list of queer tragedies, from classic novels like The Well of Loneliness to lesbian teen romances like Lost and Delirious. Although Ahmed rejects that “happy” queer stories are necessarily any better (as a “happy” queer film is often a tale of assimilation, and one that erases the reality of hardship), she does insist that a queer form of happiness would require struggle, and that struggle requires aspiration. “We could remember that the Latin root of the word aspiration means ‘to breathe’,” she writes, “I think the struggle for a bearable life is the struggle for queers to have a space to breathe” (p.120).  Killing queer figures does exactly the opposite.

There was one moment of the film that actually passed all my queer/critical tests. During a scene at a party at the hotel, one of the hotel owners approaches Albert and asks him why he’s not in fancy dress. “I’m a waiter, sir,” Albert states. “And I’m a doctor,” the doctor replies, “We’re both disguised as ourselves.”

Astute point, Doctor. Judith Butler would be proud that you’re pointing out that we’re all in disguise, performing our selves and our gender, trans or not. I only wish that I had decided, on that night, to be disguised as a femme who saved $9 by not seeing Albert Nobbs. [2]

 

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[1] No surprises here, folks. As a reviewer on NPR noted, Hubert looks a lot like Rachel Maddow. Agreed. A 19th century house-painting, smoking Rachel Maddow. Swoon.

[2] Actually, that’s not true. I’m glad I saw it. As a sucker for the Oscars, I’m always excited to see the nominated films, and as a critical media studies grad student, I’m always glad to see films if for no other reason than to critique them. : )

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