Albert Nobbs


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Albert Nobbs, the character, is a woman pretending to be a man in order to obtain better employment opportunities and a higher status in Dublin in the early 20th century. She works as a waiter/butler in a comfortable hotel, a job that comes with a salary, tips, and free room and board, allowing Albert to save up nearly enough money to buy her own tobacco shop.

Albert is one of those timid, deferential man-servants who never speaks except when spoken to and even then uses an emotionless voice to speak only the minimum number of syllables necessary. That was the personality that best served her job, of course, but it was also optimal for her gender impersonation because her complete self-control prevented any hint of a feminine voice from betraying her. After decades of playing the same role, she became her character. Would Albert have sported a different personality if she had lived a happy life as Alberta? Would she have been a vivacious, extroverted woman? Perhaps. We see her transform briefly but quite dramatically in the one scene where she tries on female clothing for a walk on the beach. In the normal course of life, however, Albert has done everything necessary to assume the personality of a shy man of terse phrases, and the years of doing so have made that her "real" self.

The permanent role assumption affects her sexual identity as well. Albert has been living in male clothing for so long that she is no longer really certain what kind of gender role to take in the bedroom. She did not begin the disguise because she was a lesbian, or because she took pleasure from wearing male clothing, but simply as a matter of necessity. She was a working-class orphan who was on the streets at the age of 14. As a woman she was subject to every kind of abuse imaginable, including rape by lower-class thugs. As a man, she was not only able to roam the city unmolested, but also found that there were better opportunities in general. After assuming a male identity for more than a quarter of a century, however, she now finds herself possessing a male sexual psychology to go with her wardrobe. She's not attracted to men, and yearns for a life with a beautiful young woman who works as a maid in the same hotel.

Be careful what you pretend to be ...

Glenn Close spends nearly the entire film playing Albert in male clothing, and does so in such a convincing manner that the audience can believe that the other characters never suspected the truth. I would not be surprised if she gets an Oscar nomination because this is the kind of role that usually gets recognized as great acting. Let's face it, people tend to admire a performance in which the actor's real self cannot be detected underneath a facade of impersonation, and this one fits the bill. Unfortunately, Glenn Close really had nothing to work with in terms of developing a specific male personality, because there is nothing special about Albert. Albert Nobbs is successful as a man-servant for the very reason that she is not a very interesting film character - she has no personality. It makes no difference that a woman is actually there because there's no there there. Albert fades into the background except when summoned by his superiors. He's a generic factotum, like the fungible and sexless butlers who are always present in every English drawing-room drama to say "yes m'lud" and fetch tea. Even when given the rare opportunity to behave naturally among those aware of her secret, Albert has nothing witty or intelligent to say, and merely reacts laconically to what is around her. Glenn Close is doubly to blame for Albert's complete lack of a personality because she is credited not only as an actress, but as one of the screenwriters as well. Glenn did a great job as a generic male butler, but there's nothing very interesting about a generic male butler.

Moreover, Glenn's performance is only the second-best in her own film. Janet McTeer plays another woman passing as a man, and her performance is spectacular. While Glenn Close pulls of her impersonation by playing the asexual and obsequious sort of generic male found in her profession, McTeer steers in another direction. She is a sexy, huge (McTeer is 6'1") working class guy! She's the Randall McMurphy of male impersonators - charismatic, witty, lively, and highly attractive to females when playing a male!

McTeer clearly deserves an Oscar nomination for totally stealing a film from another probable Oscar nominee. Ms. McTeer is making quite an improbable comeback to film at age 50 by setting aside all her dignified Masterpiece Theater demeanor to play bad-asses. Earlier this year she stole another film as a frightening but complicated hired assassin in Cat Run.

Despite some impressive period detail which evokes the best and worst aspects of a bygone Dublin, and the estimable performances of McTeer and Close, the film itself is a total snooze-fest. Male or female, Albert is dim-witted and pitiable, dull and humorless, and his/her dreams are uninspiring. I could never bring myself to care about the character in any way, and could muster up neither enthusiasm for her aspirations nor sadness at her ultimate fate. Moreover, all of the situations surrounding him/her seem to be so generic that one is left wondering whether the film is supposed to be a drama or a sly parody of the seemingly endless string of English/Irish period dramas from days gone by. Frankly, I wish those days really had gone by and were not revived by this film.

Source novella


2.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
53 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
56 (of 100)


6.8 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. Unknown, but very little.


  • One of Glenn Close's breasts is fleetingly exposed. The scene is necessary in order to another character to realize that she is a woman.
  • Janet McTeer exposes her enormous breasts to prove that she's not a man. I'm convinced.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Drab movie polished by great performances.