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Movie Review

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau observed, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Albert Nobbs is not a man. But the woman who has worn a man's crisp waiter tuxedo for 30 years is most assuredly quiet … and full of desperation.

Albert's peculiar tale is drenched in Dickensian woe. In poverty-racked 19th-century Ireland, Albert was born the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy woman who didn't want her. Her mother—whom Albert knows only from a single, cherished photo—paid a woman by the name of Mrs. Nobbs to raise the little girl. But when Albert's mother-for-hire passes away, the young orphan is dangerously vulnerable … and is viciously raped by five men. She is utterly without means of support and safety in a wickedly indifferent world.

In an act of spontaneous desperation, 14-year-old Albert dons a disheveled waiter's coat, impersonates a boy and earns a waiter's job. Three decades later she's still serving at Morrison's Hotel in Dublin, living in a tiny apartment on the premises.

She's still wearing a waiter's uniform. She's still guarding the secret that utterly isolates her from meaningful human connection with anyone beyond what her profession formally requires.

And then everything changes in a moment. The hotel's owner, Mrs. Baker, a countess, informs Albert that a man painting the hotel needs a room for the night—her room. Quiet desperation becomes palpable panic when the man, Hubert Page, catches Albert removing her elaborate corset and realizes the short-haired waiter is actually a woman.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in this and the following sections.]

Albert begs the painter not to reveal her secret. Mr. Page makes the pledge … and then unwraps his shirt to reveal that he, like Albert, isn't who he's presenting himself to be. "Mr." Page and Albert form a fast bond, of course, and when Albert learns that Hubert has … a wife … their journey grows even more strange as Albert begins to ponder whether she, too, might find someone to share her life with.


Positive Elements

Albert Nobbs is unintentionally trapped in a prison of her own making. There's no way she could have known her impulsive decision to impersonate a boy to get a job would dictate the role she'd play for the rest of her life. But because she does it out of an instinct of self-preservation in the wake of terrible trauma, her actions can be assigned a certain sense of accomplishment, even personal triumph over an extreme circumstance.

They certainly can't be branded with any sort of deviancy. For Albert wouldn't even understand the word.

How do we know this? The clues are everywhere, but nowhere more evident than when Hubert introduces Albert to her wife, Cathleen, and suggests that Albert could also marry and enjoy similar companionship. Hubert and Cathleen, it is implied, are in a lesbian relationship. But Albert's naive conception of marriage and her nearly asexual understanding of love allow her to think of it as nothing more than companionship and legitimacy. It would earn her respect in the community. It would allow her to start her own business. And she can't for the life of her figure out when or how she would/could/should tell her betrothed who she really is.

When she does finally propose marriage to a female co-worker, she does so in terms of care and protection. She promises, "I'll take care of you. Don't worry … you'll be safe with me." And she doggedly and self-sacrificially tries to live up to her assurances.

As a waiter, Albert is kind, conscientious and hardworking. She is frugal and disciplined. Conversely, a man's bad example—he's known as a womanizer—is set up as instructive, not glorified or glamorized.

Spiritual Content

Catholicism's influence on Irish culture is obvious. Albert has a Bible, we see crucifixes on walls in several scenes, one person genuflects, and characters occasionally offer earnest spiritual exclamations such as "sweet Jesus and all the saints in heaven" and "thank the Lord." A man on a street corner carries a placard counseling repentance because the kingdom of God is at hand. We hear passing reference to the Free Masons.

Albert has something like a vision of the comforting home and hearth she's spent her life pining for.

Sexual Content

A very brief flash of the tops of Albert's breasts is visible as she removes her restrictive corset. More explicit is the scene in which Hubert literally and figuratively reveals herself to Albert by pulling her shirt apart and baring her breasts.

Hotel resident Dr. Holloran is seen performing oral sex on a maid. We see his head between her legs and hear her response; she's mostly covered with a nightgown. Helen, the young maid Albert proposes to, delights in talking naughtily about her attraction to a man. And she is indeed sleeping with one while Albert is courting her. When a co-worker quips that he's likely to use her and then leave her "high and dry," her retort giddily references the thrill of the sex they'll have.

She and he are later shown kissing and in bed together (where she's wearing a flimsy nightshirt). And still later, she tells him that she's pregnant.

Helen is surprised when Albert proposes marriage, saying that any man who wants to marry a woman should be displaying passion for her and should want to kiss her (which Albert hasn't done). Albert proceeds to give her a chaste peck on the cheek, whereupon Helen seizes Albert and gives her a passionate kiss on the lips.

A male hotel guest wears a dress to a costume ball. Behind closed doors, we see him shirtless while another man lies naked in bed in the next room. (We see a bare torso and leg.)

It becomes clear—but not through expression of physical attraction—that Hubert and Cathleen's connection either became or always was a lesbian one. And it's subtly implied that Hubert is angling for another such relationship with another woman after Cathleen dies.

Violent Content

Hubert, telling Albert that she was married to a man once, describes her husband as a drunk bully whom she left after he kicked her savagely. Albert shares her even more tragic story, briefly talking about being gang raped as a young teen. "They hurt me," she says simply. A co-worker describes his father as a "fierce whore for the drink" and "a mean drunk" who "beat the stuffing out of us."

We hear about a man falling down the stairs and later see that he has a nasty black eye as a result. A fight between a woman and her boyfriend expands as others gather around. There's pushing and shoving, and Albert gets thrown hard into a wall. We see a bit of blood trickling from her ear.

Crude or Profane Language

At least four obvious f-words as well as several uses of the Irish-accented "fekkin." One s-word. Seven or eight misuses of God's named (one of them paired with "d‑‑n") and a half-dozen misuses of Jesus' name. We hear one use each of "arse" and "pr-ck."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Hotel guests and employees drink various alcoholic beverages and smoke cigarettes. Several scenes show people who are obviously drunk, including the doctor, who drinks first thing in the morning in an attempt to tame a hangover. Somebody else gargles wine early one morning. Helen talks Albert into buying her an expensive bottle of whiskey.

Albert dreams of opening a tobacconist shop, never mind that she's apparently never rolled or smoked a cigarette in her life. (We see Hubert and Cathleen teaching her how to do so.)

Other Negative Elements

Essentially turning himself into a pimp, Helen's boyfriend instructs her to feign interested in Albert and allow "him" to do whatever he wants with her in order to take financial advantage. Mrs. Baker finds Albert's money after her death and callously keeps it for herself.


At its most basic level, Albert Nobbs' story is simply a tragedy, the tale of a woman whose circumstances and choices have left her trapped in a suffocating situation she cannot escape. Actress Glenn Close, who first portrayed Albert in a 1982 play and has been long been working to get this film made, says that her character never has a chance to form any kind of real identity.

"She wasn't even told what her name was," Close says in the film's production notes. "She's an illegitimate child, raised by a woman who was paid to raise her and who never revealed her real name. I figured the woman was paid not to tell. The parents didn't want to be bothered by this child ever again. So Albert starts off with a lack of identity and embeds herself in this hotel when she's 14 years old. Hence she has no life tools; she's lived in a hotel all her life."

Perhaps that's why she remains, in significant ways, in a state of perpetual childlikeness, naively believing that she could marry Helen (perhaps even without ever giving up her secret) and somehow live happily ever after.

In this core sense, then, Albert Nobbs isn't really about sexuality at all. Rather, it's about a human being's most basic need for security, the longing for a place to call home—and the desire to share it with someone. Peel back another layer, however, and the film also offers an up-to-the-minute reflection of our culture's attitudes toward marriage, homosexuality and personal fulfillment.

Despite the fact that she must keep her true identity a secret from the outside world, Hubert is quite happy in her lesbian marriage to Cathleen. And Hubert believes Albert has a chance to experience something similar. "You don't have to be anything but who you are," Hubert says as she encourages Albert to pursue marriage.

Dr. Holloran also, eventually, discovers Albert's sad secret. And from him we also sense the film's deeper purpose. He laments, "Dear Jesus, I don't know what makes people live such miserable lives." Maybe the implications wouldn't be immediately apparent if Albert's story had not intersected with Hubert's. But as it is, it's quite clear: If society would simply let people be who they are and love who they want, they wouldn't have to trudge through such wretched existences, lives full of secrets and deception and unfulfilled longings.

It's a sentiment full of both old truths and modern lies.

A postscript: While addressing the issue of historical gender disparity so profoundly illustrated in Albert Nobbs, I feel compelled to make an observation about its modern incarnation in movies. What happens when one gender plays the other? When men put on a dress and lipstick, the intended effect is almost always laughter. Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. Tyler Perry's turns as Madea. Adam Sandler as brother and sister twins in Jack and Jill. John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

When women play men, however, the outcome is more often tragic. Sooner or later, we've been taught to anticipate, these vulnerable women's well-cloaked secret—usually under layers of femininity-disguising clothes—will be revealed. And their worlds will explode. Or end. The most prominent example of this (before Albert Nobbs)? The story of Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), horrifically illustrated in 1999's Boys Don't Cry.

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Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs; Mia Wasikowska as Helen; Aaron Johnson as Joe Machin; Janet McTeer as Hubert Page; Bronagh Gallagher as Cathleen; Pauline Collins as Mrs. Baker; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mary; Brendan Gleeson as Dr. Holloran; Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Viscount Yarrell


Rodrigo Garcia ( )


Roadside Attractions



Record Label



In Theaters

January 27, 2012

On Video

May 15, 2012

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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