'Albert Nobbs' displays another side of Close

Glenn Close's Albert Nobbs, a butler, wants to open a shop with the young maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). "The story touches on so many levels," Close says. "I love stories that people can bring all their own baggage to." She first played the role onstage (right) in 1982.
Glenn Close's Albert Nobbs, a butler, wants to open a shop with the young maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). "The story touches on so many levels," Close says. "I love stories that people can bring all their own baggage to." She first played the role onstage (right) in 1982. (Roadside AttractionsGERRY GOODSTEIN)
Posted: January 26, 2012

TORONTO - Even just five months ago, in the late-summer days of the Toronto International Film Festival, audiences who saw Albert Nobbs knew: Glenn Close, Oscar nomination.

On Tuesday, their presentiment was borne out, and how could it not be?

As the title character of the small-budgeted, bighearted tale of a late-19th-century Dubliner who spends her life disguised as a man, Close is funny, poignant, and so deep into her role that you forget you're watching the psycho-stalker of Fatal Attraction, the debauched aristo of Dangerous Liaisons, the lethal litigator of TV's Damages.

Instead, you're looking at a tiny, timid creature - so lost in the quiet order of her lonely life, so fearful of being found out - that she does everything she can to not be there. Close's Nobbs never looks anyone in the eye, never raises his/her voice, never makes a fuss.

Until, as Albert Nobbs proceeds, it's impossible not to.

"The story touches on so many levels," Close says, holding court the morning after her Toronto festival premiere. "It's about what people do to survive, and the importance of connection, and being able to feel safe. Human beings are very basic, and have very basic needs.

"And also, if you're lucky to have work that will give you a sense of worth - it's about that, too. It's about simple things, but essential things. . . . I love stories that people can bring all their own baggage to."

The film, which received three Academy Award nominations - for Close, supporting actress Janet McTeer, and its remarkably understated but transformational makeup work - opens Friday. It's a project that Close had wanted to do since 1982, when she walked onto the stage of the Manhattan Theatre Club, performing The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs - an adaptation of a short story by George Moore.

The actress won an Obie Award for her work, and Mr. Nobbs - a hotel butler who squirrels away his earnings for a better day - won a place in her heart.

"I hadn't done very many films back then," says Close, who made her screen debut that year opposite Robin Williams in The World According to Garp and had just shot the boomer ensemble piece The Big Chill. "But even then I knew I wanted to bring Albert to the screen. I mean, the character just never left me. I played it onstage every night and it was kind of amazing, because this simple story just left people deeply moved. It slayed them."

It slayed Rodrigo Garcia, too. The director, who has known Close for a dozen years - he directed her in the ensemble anthology piece Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her - was eager to help the actress make Albert Nobbs a reality.

"It's a story with powerful conflicts," Garcia says, in a separate interview. "And it was evident why anyone would want to play it. And Glenn was so right for this, from top to bottom."

In the film, Nobbs' deep, dark secret is discovered by a painter who is refurbishing part of the hotel - a tall, garrulous chap named Hubert, in all ways the opposite of Nobbs, except for one key thing. Nobbs and Hubert become friends, but it's a friendship that doesn't turn out as Nobbs had hoped, and all sorts of drama and tragedy ensue.

"It is a sad story," says Garcia, "but it was hard times back then. Not only because of the poverty and the social context, but these are the kinds of things that can happen when you don't have a chance to know yourself and be yourself.

"The amount of erasing of herself that Nobbs has to do to survive - and I say Nobbs because we don't even know what her other name is. She had erased herself to such an extent, not knowing herself, her identity, not remembering or using her own name, having no idea of her sexual identity - you'd think, well, how could it end otherwise?"

Shot in 33 days on a modest $8 million budget, Albert Nobbs boasts a fine cast of Brits (the formidable McTeer, Pauline Collins, Aaron Johnson), Irish (Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and even an Aussie (the great Mia Wasikowska).

Close, who cowrote the screenplay and also served as one of the film's producers, jokes about the lengths her cast and crew had to go to re-create turn-of-the-century Dublin on a shoestring.

"We had one bay horse, and we repurposed and re-dressed these two half-blocks of Dublin so many times," she recalls. "We would sit in production meetings and Julie Lynn, the producer, would say, 'OK, we need to cut 80,000 euros out of our budget . . . . So then it came down to how much would it cost to keep the dining room for another day, and if we couldn't be in that room, where could we change the scene to, and where could we shoot where we wouldn't have to pay for it? Stuff like that. It was crazy, but it was fun."

And emotional. Close, 64 now, and at work again on the fifth season of Damages ("back into those high heels, oh God!"), has finally put the repressed and reticent, gender-bending Mr. Nobbs behind her.

"I think that probably more than ever now, more than 20 years ago," she says, "Albert Nobbs has huge resonance for our culture."

And perhaps huge resonance for the Academy Awards' voting members, too.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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