Sensitive but Flawed: Albert Nobbs (2011)

Albert Nobbs is a film which I found both impressive and disappointing.  It’s unusually intelligent about gender but it also contains some of the weaknesses that often undermine the representation of LGBT characters in film and, ultimately, it left me feeling ambivalent.

Set in nineteenth-century Ireland, the film centres on the figure of Albert (Glenn Close), a person who has been assigned female at birth, but who from adolescence onwards has lived as a man. Despite developing a successful career as a waiter in hotels, Albert’s shyness and fear of discovery has resulted in him becoming lonely and socially isolated.  Albert’s life changes when he meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), another female-assigned person who is living as a man.  Hubert has a more positive outlook on their predicament and opens Albert’s eyes to the possibility of an independent life, of owing his own business and perhaps even marrying.  Albert sets about courting a young woman called Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the hotel, not realising that she is already involved in a romance with a young man called Joe who wants to emigrate to America.  Seeing an opportunity here, Joe persuades Helen to lead Albert on in the hope that she will gain access to his money.

Spoiler Alert – this post discusses the plot in detail 

Glenn Close and Janet McTeer give impressive and often painfully moving performances and I was pleased to see a film that represents the lives of Albert and Hubert without falling back on voyeurism and salaciousness.  Where I thought the film especially intelligent and empathetic was in its nuanced representation of gender.  There’s a great and very touching scene in which Albert and Hubert put on clothes designed for women and go for a walk on the beach together, showing how much gender presentation can be about the way we move and occupy space.  It’s also unusual in its understanding that gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing and that people have had to construct their gender identities in relation to the historical and material realities of the times in which they lived.  Albert Nobbs makes no attempt to pin its characters down to modern sex and gender categories and seems to appreciate that such categories would be alien to them.  The film reminds me of a comment by Alan Sinfield observing that identities are constructed “within an array of prevailing social possibilities” (The Wilde Century, 11). Albert and Hubert can only create their identities within the social possibilities that are available to them in nineteenth-century Ireland and their gender presentation is linked to survival because they would both be destitute and subject to violence if they lived as women.  The film is quite radically feminist in its focus on the enforcement of gender conformity and patriarchy through male violence.

However, if we are going to read the characters in relation to modern sex and gender categories, I would say that Albert seems to occupy a transgender position and Hubert perhaps something closer to a butch lesbian identity.  Hubert lives in what seems to be quite a traditional butch/femme relationship with a woman called Cathleen who he sees as his wife.  Both can be seen as people on a trans-masculine spectrum, but a subtle difference in their positions is conveyed when Hubert asks Albert what his “real” name is and Albert responds with “Albert”.  It’s worth noting that so many responses to the film refer to Albert as a “woman who poses as a man to survive” when it seems to me that Albert occupies a position closer to that of a trans man.  Other viewers might read the positions differently, but what I liked was the way it got me thinking about gender and my own assumptions.

So, where did it go wrong for me?  If there’s one film trope I hate, it’s the trope of the miserable, tragic, helpless and ultimately dead LGBT person.  Albert is a persistently hapless figure who is clearly doomed from the start.  The plot also requires him to be at times quite remarkably naive and dense for someone who would have had to have a great deal of innate canniness and intelligence to survive for so long and so successfully in the life that he has.  The film knows that a more contented life is possible because Hubert is doing alright, but it can’t seem to countenance the possibility of them both surviving and living happily.  It often seems that in LGBT films someone has to die!  There may be truth in what happens to Albert because a lot of people have died as a result of homophobic and transphobic violence, but I will be glad when one day we get beyond this tragic and doomed narrative.  I just hate the way it positions LGBT lives as somehow justifiable because they are pitiable.

Another aspect of the film that I really disliked was the implicit link it made between sexual violence and the adoption of genderqueer identities.  There is a scene, which I thought wholly unnecessary to the plot, in which Albert discloses to Hubert that he took on his male identity after experiencing gang rape as a teenager.  At this moment, I could just imagine members of the audience heaving a sigh of relief, “Ah, so that why she’s like that”.  I hate the trope of sexual abuse as a cause of, or perhaps “excuse” for, sex and gender nonconformity.   This association haunts the lives of LGBT abuse survivors. It becomes an eternal question mark hanging over our identities and desires and works as a strong disincentive to talking about our experiences of abuse for fear of them being used against us.  The film doesn’t leave Hubert alone in this regard either, revealing that he took on his male identity after his husband kicked him in the genital/reproductive area.  The film could have balanced this out by doing something to suggest that Albert and Hubert were already sex and gender nonconformists before their experiences of male violence, but it just doesn’t bother.  At this point, I felt the film was copping out and trying to give the straight, cis audience something to grab onto as a justification for the lives of its characters, rather than just letting them be who they are without offering a “reason”.

As an aside, something else that I thought was interesting was the way the film used bodies to reveal the character’s secrets.  In both cases, the secret was outed by Albert and Hubert revealing their breasts – Albert accidentally and Hubert deliberately.  I wondered, what does this revelation of breasts really mean? Is it the revelation of a “Truth” and, if so, what kind of truth? Insofar as breasts have come to signify femaleness in Western culture, some of the audience might read it as a revelation of an essential femaleness concealed beneath male disguises.  But a more sophisticated reading might see it as a revelation not of  femaleness but of gender queerness because what is being revealed is the secret itself.  Until the breasts are revealed, no one would know that Albert and Hubert have a secret to hide.  So what Hubert seems to be saying to Albert  here is not, “I’m really a woman”, so much as, “I have the same problem that you do – a body that always threatens to give me away and endanger me”.

Perhaps a little more thought could have gone into the film’s ending.  After Albert is dead and Joe has left for America, Helen is abandoned with her baby, knowing that she will probably have to give up the child because she can’t afford to raise it on her own.  The final scene is a conversation about this problem between her and Hubert, and the film ends with the assumption that Hubert will take Helen and the child in – Cathleen having rather too conveniently died of the fever earlier in the film.  The problem with this scene, from my perspective, is that no attempt had been made to develop a relationship between Helen and Hubert, and Hubert could look a little predatory here as an older, experienced person setting sights on a very young and extremely vulnerable girl, who really has little choice but to accept the attentions.  Hubert is a good and likeable character, and the scene also implies a rescue of Helen, but it still didn’t sit quite right with me because Helen’s feelings were erased and she had no agency in the relationship.  The film could have developed the relationship a bit more and given her some agency, but it chose not to.

So overall I would say Albert Nobbs is an unusually sensitive and brave depiction of sex and gender nonconformity, but it fails in the places where it falls back on tropes and clichés because it just doesn’t seen to have  the courage of its convictions.

4 thoughts on “Sensitive but Flawed: Albert Nobbs (2011)

  1. Thank you for this awesome review. I have been holding back on watching this because of this: “If there’s one film trope I hate, it’s the trope of the miserable, tragic, helpless and ultimately dead LGBT person.” I am SO tired of the LGBT person being fucked over and dying that I am really tempted not to watch this at all. But…Glenn Close!! So torn…

    • Sorry for the slow reply – I’ve been sick. The performances are excellent, but it’s grueling and has LGBT tragedy in spades. I’m not sure whether I can say the quality of the performances outweighs the presence of the extremely tiresome narrative trope.

      I did wonder if I was a little unfair in this post because, in a sense, Albert has to die for the story to work (it’s based on a play based on a true story about a person who died in 19th century Ireland), but I will think there could be other ways to tell the story and why is it stories like this that keep being made?

      • Aw man – I hope you’re feeling better!

        This is it – why do they keep making these terrible stories?? I remember being SO furious when I read Sarah Water’s Affinity, because I was all “You didn’t NEED to end it like that, you jerk!! Why are you just adding to the stupid “tragic homo” trope??”

        I’m still kind of furious.

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