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By Alex Lynchehaun
Albert Nobbs seems more walking disguise than human being; far from being a recognizable heroine, she is represented by the back of a head and a faceless suit. The eventual revelation of her face doesn’t dispel this; some might recognize Glenn Close and resolve the gender question, but otherwise she is one of a uniform row of butlers, playing her part so impeccably that no personality shows through. Throughout those first scenes her face never relaxes, and she acts according to the strictest rules of formality. Her presence is predictable enough to be forgotten, letting her observe more colorful, glamorous lives.
The audience soon discovers that Morrison’s hotel is a hotbed of sexual politics, the most significant romance being between the maid Helen and the renegade youth brought to fix the boiler, Joe Mackins. Like every other background character, these two seem blessed with the life and personality Nobbs lacks, but lack complexity. They don’t have other sides to conceal; the rich young snobs staying at the hotel are happy to remain so, as Mrs. Baker is vacuous, Mackins appears a useless wastrel. Nobbs’ reticence, by contrast, suggests there must be more. That is why the birth of Nobbs’ fledgling self is such a fascinating process, if tragically incomplete.
This emergence is triggered by Hubert’s arrival, a house painter who discovers Nobbs’ secret and reveals her own; by coincidence, they are the same. Hubert kindles Nobbs’ ambitions, allowing us to finally access Nobbs’ mind. We see inside her dream tobacco shop, scenes of idyllic domesticity; this is not the inner self of a rebel, but one who has embraced convention and just wants to live in peace. Unlike Helen, she doesn’t resent her servility to the upper classes or the class system itself; what she values is living with decency. If this is too Victorian for the audience, they must recognize how it would arise from years as a butler; Nobbs’ dreams are those of any man in her position.
The audience must also recognize how Nobbs is limited by her disguise, a life spent hiding begets weakness. She makes mistakes you could spot a mile off, the most obvious being her decision to court Helen. The central premise of the story—someone who has always hidden their personal life would risk everything for someone who doesn’t even want to work in a tobacco shop—looks ludicrous, unless explained in terms of Nobbs’ extreme naiveté. Nobbs’ disguise not only prevents fellow characters from understanding her, but her from understanding them. She is not insightful and is in constant danger of being led astray. The audience can see why Nobbs will fall into the trap. They pity her but without the years of disguise that molded Nobbs’ personality, they cannot fall with her. Just as in the brief scene on the beach, when Nobbs runs forward in her women’s clothes, finally free, we get a glimpse of her inner self, one moment of connection, and then she falls forward and we are sympathetic outsiders again.