28 April 2012

Gender politics in "Albert Nobbs", the film

Late in the C19th in Ireland, a woman could not yet be truly financially independent. The main character Albert Nobbs (played by Glenn Close) was a woman who had to dress and live as a man, in order to escape a life of poverty and dependence on a husband. Apparently she had long ago decided to work as a waiter in a hotel, in male clothes with a male name. 30 years later, Nobbs was still a hard working waiter in the same hotel, silent and socially inept.

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 (Janet McTeer) not been hired by the hotel, and had the painter not been allocated Nobbs’ room over night. 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 (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 & 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 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

The film did suggest some hope for the working classes, especially when Nobbs began to reconsider his own future. I won’t give away the dénouement except to say that it was full of tragedy and optimism, in almost equal proportions. Whether the modern viewer enjoys the film or not depends largely on how much relentless, working class pain the viewer is prepared to tolerate. The viewer can see this film as a localised drama, or can focus on the broader issues about class, gender and sexuality in Dublin.


The film was based on a novella, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, which was first published back in 1927 by the politically aware Irish writer George Moore (1852–1933). And he wrote another collection in 1927 called Celibate Lives, also controversial.  For a much maligned author at home, Moore mixed in rather impressive literary and artistic circles abroad i.e London and Paris.  Émile Zola, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein are often mentioned. 

Now literary critics acknowledge that Moore helped modernise Irish literature, supporting a serious exploration of gender & social class roles. 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.


Andrew said...

Interesting subject but the movie sounds very bleak.

Film buff said...

I agree. The only people not having a bleak time were the exploitative hotel guests who bought a good time for themselves. At the workers expense.

Hels said...


nod... it was bleak. The workers were overworked, underpaid, sexually exploited and certainly not unionised. Yet there was a sense of family amongst the staff. Breakfast together was fun filled, and they looked out for each other.

Interesting to remember that the film was not set in medieval Europe. My grandparents were certainly alive in 1898.

Hels said...

Film buff

I agree. The wealthy guests were not an attractive lot - they were totally insensitive to the staff as human beings. Not intentionally cruel, I think; but focused on their own pleasure.

Hermes said...

Heard the reviews last week and they were positive but not sure I want to watch it. There are a number of fascinatingtrue stories in history like Hannah Snell and may others.

Dina said...

All this sounds like something from such a totally different world.

Helen, thanks for your visit and question. , I assume many museums around the world will be free on May 18, International Museum Day.
Here is info about the Australian museums that participated last year:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
We were much interested to read this very detailed account of this film which, from all that you say, is something which perhaps one should try to see.

Irish literature appeals to us enormously as do Irish films. Last week, as part of the film festival here, we saw 'Sensation' and 'Parked', both low budget films, each quite bleak in a way, but certainly worth seeing if you have the opportunity.

Parnassus said...

There is an interesting question of basic identity under this. We understand economic compulsion, but most poor women did not resort to this sort of impersonation, and probably most attempts would have been quickly unmasked. This makes her an even more interesting psychological study than if the movie were simply about inequities towards women.

A side note: she hid her tips under the floor. This was a not uncommon practice; many of those caches were never claimed, and are still sitting exactly where they were hidden!

--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


I knew the story of Hannah Snell (1723–1792) but was never sure what to make of it. After all, why wouldn't an ambitious, adventurous woman not want to get out of the closed confines of home? Yet yet... how was her gender never discovered on board a tiny ship?

Even more so in late 19th century Dublin for Nobbs. Less adventuresome, but far more protected from discovery.

See the film.. I thought it was beautifully done.

Hels said...


thus the joy of blogging :) and even better, of travel!

As I said to Andrew, it wasn't that long ago. My grandparents talked about the late Victoria- Edwardian era all the time.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

My entire adult life has been restricted largely to British, Australian and European films.

So it has been a real eye opener over the last 12 years to see wonderful films from Iran, India, China, Japan and now Ireland. I hope you see Albert Nobbs.

Hels said...


*nod* I am coming around to the position of seeing Albert Nobbs as a study of psychological identity and not just as an analysis of economic compulsion.

But I saw the film before reading the alternatives blogs, like Skip the Makeup! So the new insights should be credited to other people.

The Clever Pup said...

Very cool. I will rent it on my bachelorette weekend. I'm thinking about doing some research into cross-dressing Great War soldiers. Busy tho'.

Hels said...


Excellent... perfect timing for your research into cross dressing and any other gender variations you might find. Glad to have added something useful.

Dennise said...

When I saw this,I am really amazed.

Lounge suites perth

Hels said...


thanks...me too :)

I don't know anything about the scholarly analysis of films, but I am quite happy to discuss a film that interests me historically or artistically. Which Albert Nobbs certainly did.