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Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review - Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close, one of my favorite actresses, stars in this strange but gripping film about a nineteenth century Irish woman living life impersonating a man. Close was nominated for Best Actress, a well-deserved honor which has eluded her for years. This character was perfect Oscar material—odd and a bit unappealing, almost like a wax figure of a human living a stoic, robotic life. At first blush, I decided to forego seeing the movie, but the wonders of Netflix tempted my husband and me to give it a try. We were fully prepared to turn it off if the story dipped into the racy and salacious world of drag queens and transvestites, but it was nothing like that at all. While there are a few R rated moment, the movie is basically a tender, heart-breaking tale, with the common theme of a deeply wounded person desperately seeking love.

The setting is nineteenth century Dublin, where Albert Nobbs, a strange, androgynous-looking man, works as a waiter in Morrison's Hotel run by Marge Baker (Pauline Collins). Albert is diligent and hard-working and saves his money under a loose floorboard in his bedroom, hoping to purchase a business one day. Quiet and reclusive, Albert has few friends and is viewed by the other hotel staff as odd and eccentric. One day, a man named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) is forced to share a bed with Albert for one night while painting a room in the hotel. Albert is horrified to have another human in his room, being especially careful to keep the location of his savings a secret. But it is the truth regarding his gender that is laid bare. Hubert inadvertently brings fleas into the bed which starts Albert on a scratching frenzy, causing him to strip off his shirt. Hubert assures Albert that his true identity will remain secure, but Albert remains worried that his cover will be blown. The next day, Hubert sets Albert’s mind at ease by revealing that he too is a woman, living life as a man.

Hubert tells Albert about her past life—that she was once married but finally retaliated against her violent and abusive husband. Instead of trying to survive in a man’s world, where a divorced/separated woman would be outcast, Hubert took on the identity of a man and lived happily and successfully as a house painter. Albert is pleased to know another woman who understands her situation, someone else who is hiding from past pain and just trying to survive under the social and economic constraints of their day. For the first time, Albert smiles and shows signs of hope for a better life.

As I watched this movie, I had to stop and evaluate my thoughts on what was being presented. While I do not condone women living as men and vice versa, especially in today’s North American society, I was reminded that it is best to ask why someone would choose such a lifestyle instead of automatically pointing the finger and judging wrong behavior. The world may say someone is born with a genetic predisposition to have certain desires, but in a fallen world where all men are born into sin, that is no excuse. Besides, the world has been given the cure for all sin and that is the person of Jesus Christ. But in the case of a person who doesn’t know the Savior and who has only been exposed to religion and harsh judgment, a closer examination is required. Why would this lifestyle be chosen? Could there be a past hurt, a sexual violation that created confusion or a paralyzing fear that makes that person shun normal intimacy? With today’s grim statistics on sex abuse, I’m always surprised that finger-pointing Christians don’t stop to ask these questions and explore whether there may be a connection. This film very subtly addresses that issue in a beautiful way.

As Albert gets to know Hubert and observes his happy life, she breaks down and shares her story. All we learn is that she was once a happy, young woman, but then on a fateful night when a group of young men abducted and violated her, her entire existence changed. At a time when hurt and shame was to be buried deep within the heart, never to be unearthed, Albert Nobbs came to be—a sad, stoic man, bound by a constricting corset and the fears of being found out. My heart broke, imagining the countless other young men and women whose innocence has been stripped away so unexpectantly, leaving deep, emotional wounds that never heal.

There is a wonderful scene where Hubert and Albert don dresses and bonnets and head to the beach for a stroll. Albert delights in the sun, wind, and salty spray, running through the sand as a woman again, experiencing a freedom that she hasn’t experienced in years. And then suddenly, she trips and falls, a reminder that hurt is in the world, just waiting to inflict more pain when least expected. The message is clear—for someone who has been deeply wounded, risking the joys of life as a normal, free person isn’t worth the cost of being hurt again. As Albert quickly concludes, it is much safer to hide behind the faΓ§ade of a false identity and live a predictable, emotionless existence.


While the movie is touching and sad, it ends on a high note. Albert finally experiences love, and through his death, provides true freedom for another young woman and her baby that he never attained. As I write this review, I have a desire to see the film again to catch all of the lovely elements that promote this theme of hiding away from past hurts which preclude a life of love and freedom. For religious people who sour at anyone struggling in an alternative lifestyle, it would be best to stay away from this film, because it will offend in every way. But for those who desire to examine these issues and consider viewing the Albert Nobbs of the world as wounded victims in need of a Savior, this movie will provide more than entertainment. Hopefully, it will make you think, feel, and see others in a way you’ve never seen before, like it did me. Perhaps you will have the courage to show love and ask some questions of that wounded, hurting person in your sphere of influence who has chosen rebellion as his or her course. And perhaps you will be the one who hears their story being told for the very first time.

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