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 

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Is it OK not to like A Single Man?

 

We finally got around to watching A Single Man.  I didn’t really like it.

I’m aware that I may be influenced by my suspicious attitude towards films about queer people which I feel have been made to appeal to predominantly heterosexual audiences, plus I really dislike the hypocrisy underlying the current trend in which we see heterosexual actors using gay characters to prove their acting chops while most gay actors remain unable to come out in Hollywood or risk playing gay roles themselves.

I was also very irritated to read a comment from Firth in an interview in which he said that the film wasn’t really about gay men but, rather, about the universal experience of grief.  That is such utter bull crap when the entire point that this film is making is that the context of a gay person’s grief in the 1960s was totally different to that of a heterosexual person’s grief.  There wouldn’t even be a story here if the characters weren’t gay because, if that was the case, George’s sorrow would have been acknowledged and he would have received sympathy and support.  What’s terrible in the story is not the grief itself, but the total disenfranchisement of George’s suffering and the fact that this occurs only because he and his partner are both men.  So shut up Colin!

However, I do think I am able to get beyond these reservations and appreciate the quality of a film but, while I admired A Single Man for its beautifully artistic direction, I still didn’t like it much, perhaps for the same reason I admired it.  The art seems to overwhelm the feeling.  One of the best scenes is one of the first when George (Colin Firth) gets the phone call that informs him about his partner’s sudden death in a car accident.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, but just as I was about to crumble, George ran over to his friend Charley’s (Julianne Moore) house and the soundtrack was muted, so we watch but not hear his grief.  Perhaps the symbolism is appropriate, if a little obvious – no one can hear his grief — but I found it distancing.  The film seemed to enact its own point here and doubly silence the grief.  There were a couple of other points where the symbolism jerked me out of the narrative – the bit where we see George walking against a crowd, quite literally.

The role demanded that Firth act alone for long sections of the film.  Colin Firth is a very good actor, but I really think he’s best when he’s playing off other people. I don’t think he’s tremendously good at being alone on screen and I didn’t find the scenes in which he wanders around looking bereaved entirely convincing or moving.  The best scenes were the ones in which he was acting with other people.

I don’t like Matthew Goode, the actor who played George’s partner, Jim.  He’s rather a bland, romantic-comedy-kind-of-actor and he’s always playing these smug, super-nice guys who irritate me.  I didn’t find him convincing as a gay man and didn’t believe in their relationship because  I had no real sense of what George had lost or of the life they’d built together.  Really, I think the role needed a stronger actor than Goode who could convey a lot about their relationship in a small amount of screen time.

I hated Julianne Moore in this film and thought her performance was pretty atrocious.  She appeared to be channelling Joanna Lumley’s Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and I honestly think that Lumley would have brought more nuance and feeling to the role.  Moore here seemed to be Oscar-hunting with a very artificial performance.  It was Julianne Moore in a big wig with that American actress “English accent” playing a role I don’t think she understood – little more than a caricature.  Mind you, I have to admit I haven’t liked Moore for a while.  I thought she was excellent in The Hours, but we re-watched Magnolia the other night and she played that part at exactly the same shrill pitch in every scene.  Compare her with Melora Walters’s incredible performance in that film and Moore comes across hammy and superficial to me.  Anyway, in A Single Man I didn’t believe her relationship with George at all and couldn’t see why George would be friends with her, although Firth was giving it his best shot.

Still, the story seemed to be taking place in a vacuum.  George and Jim didn’t appear to be part of a larger community.  George went to a gay bar, but there was no context.  Why was he there? Why was he in California? It did that thing that films about gay people often do of overlooking the fact that gay people belong to a subculture.  Where were his gay friends?

So I’m not sure if this is just me, but overall I felt a bit manipulated.  It’s lovely to look at and there are some excellent scenes, but it felt like a film in which the director and the actors all had their eyes firmly fixed on the Oscars rather than on creating something authentic.  I think the first part of the much simpler If These Walls could Talk 2 deals with the same issues with much more feeling and achieves a deeper impact.  Hmm although that might be because it’s about lesbians!

But, as I’ve seen a couple of reviewers note elsewhere, what this film should really remind us of is just how little we owe to people like George and Jim – the respectable, wealthy, middle-class gays who stayed in the closet in relative safety – and just how much we do owe to the far less “respectable” gay men and trans women who risked their necks and took on the police in the Stonewall riots.  This film made me even more grateful to them.

I’ve got the Christopher Isherwood novel on which the film was based on my bookshelf, so I’ll be interested to read that now and see how it compares to its adapatation.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, All Over Me (1997)

Written by Sylvia Sichel and directed Alex Sichel

All Over Me is a lesbian coming of age drama focussed on Claude (Alison Folland), a tomboyish 15 year-old girl who lives in an underprivileged area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen.  She’s desperately in love with her more conventionally attractive (and definitely heterosexual) best friend, Ellen (Tara Subkoff).   The girls share a symbiotic relationship that will be a painful reminder to a lot of lesbian and bisexual viewers of something we experienced as teenagers.   How many of us had this kind of relationship? The over-closeness and unhealthy power dynamic that underlies the relationship between the naively adoring young lesbian and the heterosexual girl who accepts that adoration as her due, and simply doesn’t understand why her friend is so upset by the appearance of a boyfriend, is beautifully drawn in this film.

Warning – some spoilers!

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Fire (1997)

Directed by Deepa Mehta

An independent-minded young woman named Sita agrees to an arranged marriage and moves to the city to live with her husband’s family, which includes his brother, Ashok, Ashok’s dutiful wife, Radha, Sita’s disabled mother-in-law, Biji, and the family servant, Mundu.   Her arrival soon acts as a catalyst, bringing the simmering tensions beneath the surface of family life to a crisis.

Sita discovers that her husband, Jatin, is in love with a Chinese woman called Julie who has refused to marry him because she doesn’t want to take on the role of a traditional Indian wife.  It becomes apparent that Jatin has only agreed to marry her under pressure from Ashok who wants an heir for the family because Radha is infertile.   Turning to a guru for consolation, Ashok has taken a vow of celibacy, but still subjects Radha to humiliating experiences in which he uses her to “test” his sexual control.

As Radha and Sita bond and then find themselves falling in love with each other, they also begin question the traditions that have shaped their lives and slowly start to stand up to their respective husbands.   Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das are brilliant in their roles as two passionate women trying to maintain their dignity in a degrading situation.   But there aren’t really any villains in the film; it shows that everyone in the family is trapped by tradition, which seems to be represented in the silent but vigilant figure of Biji who rings her bell loudly whenever she disapproves of anything.

This is a powerfully honest film.  It isn’t shy about the realities of life and some of the scenes are gritty and quite disturbing.   But it’s also beautifully shot and directed throughout.

The way the film uses Hindu mythology is very clever, reinventing the story of Sita, whose husband insisted that she be tested by fire to prove her purity.  It does have a bit of a “fantasy lesbian ending”, but after all the grittiness, that’s ok with me.

It caused riots on its release in India and was banned in Pakistan.

Fire is a brave, honest and passionate film that I’d highly recommend viewing.

The Kids are Alright (but I’m not sure my partner’s going to be)

I am extremely skeptical about this film, but I was thinking that, since I’ve set myself the task of writing about lesbian films, I should try to watch it at some point.

Me:  “I’m not going to pay to watch it in the cinema. It can wait for DVD.”

Andy: “We’re going to watch it?!”

Me:  “We have to!”

Andy:  “We do NOT.”

Me: “So I can review it for the lesbian movie marathon”

Andy:  “I will support you if you choose to inflict this on yourself … But I feel exploited by all this crap! … There’s so many real stories they could tell and instead they choose to tell this shit! … I’m going to write to Julianne Moore and tell her to stop trying to resurrect her flagging career by appearing in bad lesbian movies.  What is this? The third one?  What’s her problem?  Why lesbians?  What did we ever do to her? Also, way to ruin a perfectly good song with bad associations!”

She sat though Clare of the Moon, but it seems that I might have found Andygrrrl’s line in the sand.  I guess you’re going to have to watch this space ….

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, Bound (1996)

Directed by Larry and Lana Wachowski

Bound is one of my absolute favourite lesbian movies, so this review will contain little in the way of objectivity.

Corky (Gina Gershon) is a butch lesbian ex-con hired to redecorate an apartment in a building where she meets Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the glamorous girlfriend of mobster Caesar (Joe Pantolioano).  The two women begin a passionate affair and come up with a plot to do the mafia out of the $2,000,000 that Caesar is supposed to be keeping safe until his boss Gino comes to collect.  As you might expect, nothing goes quite according to plan and the tension underlying the story centres on the issue of trust.  Can Corky and Violet trust each other enough to pull this off and get away with the money?

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