The film was set in a small, rather elegant Dublin hotel in 1898; there were sexual liaisons, a typhoid fever epidemic and class differences that were excruciatingly emphasised. Morrison's Hotel apparently had regular clients, people who were familiar with the tasteless food, but loved the atmosphere anyhow. It ran very smoothly, thanks to the hard work of the staff, the simpering hospitality of the owner (Mrs Baker, played by Pauline Collins) and a lot of blind eyes being turned. Dr Holloran (played by Brendan Gleeson) didn’t seem to have a regular medical practice, probably because he was a fall-down drunk, but he had a warm heart and some middle aged sex appeal.
Glenn Close as the waiter Albert Nobbs, Janet McTeer as the painter Hubert Page.
Only at night, when Nobbs escaped into his private bedroom and locked the door, did he have the time to count and record his tips down to the last halfpenny, then hide them under a floorboard.
Life might have gone on forever thus, had the wall-painter Hubert Page (played by Janet McTeer) not been hired by the hotel, and had the painter not been allocated Nobbs’ room overnight. Nobbs' secret was exposed for the first time ever, allowing Hubert Page to expose an even bigger secret – that he too was born a woman and was married to a real woman. Mrs Page (played by Bronagh Gallagher) turned out to be a very hospitable and friendly woman, who Mr Page really did love.
So what was the difference between Nobbs and Page? Where Nobbs became a “man” out of fear, Page loved his new life choices. Faced with the same societal restrictions, Hubert Page had a relatively happy life and Nobbs did not.
Nobbs decided that if the Pages could have a normal life, so could he. But he didn’t have a clue about courting a young woman. So he very ineptly went after the working-class maid Helen Dawes (played by Mia Wasikowska), who DID know what courting men were supposed to do. Helen’s choices were limited to two: the inept but decent Nobbs or the sexy but nasty boiler mechanic, Joe (Aaron Johnson).
With all of Nobbs’ silent moments and isolation, the film still managed to bring the late Victorian era (1898) to bustling life. The downstairs staff ate breakfast together before the hotel guests woke up, then spent the rest of the long day rushing around without a break. Outside the hotel, the streets were throbbing with crowds of people, working and shopping.
BETSY SHARKEY of the Los Angeles Times said “perhaps it is the very nature of its central character that is the film's problem. Nobbs is such a spectral presence that infusing any measure of life into this person is an insurmountable challenge”. I disagree. I think Glen Close, or the director Rodrigo Garcia, handled the challenge brilliantly. Gestures were so constrained that if you licked your icecream at that nano second, you may well have missed them. Nobbs’ face was nearly devoid of expression, his voice was almost pathetic and his eyes were blank. Glen Close delivered a heart-rending performance, very difficult to watch. Between fear of intimacy and fear of unemployment, Nobbs was so emotionally retarded that he was almost comatose.
Guests at the hotel partying, while the staff worked and served
Now literary critics acknowledge that Moore helped modernise Irish literature, by encouraging a serious exploration of gender and social class roles. The blog Skip The Makeup is even more specific. She says that Moore, who supported early forms of feminism and likely wrote the story as a parable of a woman escaping a hardscrabble existence, might have made conclusions from meeting a real life Albert Nobbs that were not informed with our more recent insights. Nonetheless Moore understood what he wanted this Albert to represent.