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Knight at the Movies: Albert Nobbs; Tomboy; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-01-25

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Glenn Close first played the character of Albert Nobbs—a woman passing herself off as a man working as a waiter in a hotel in 19th-century Dublin—20 years ago in an off-Broadway production. She has worked on getting a film version made ever since and because of her tenacity that the movie has finally arrived. The timing dovetails nicely with a trend that seems to be happening in indie cinema: an increased focus on the fluidity of sexual identity. Both Albert Nobbs and the French-made Tomboy (also opening this Friday in Chicago at the Music Box) are marvelous films that incorporate these questions into the heart of their storylines.

On one level, Albert Nobbs has the typical pleasures of all Upstairs/Downstairs type stories (like the current rage Downton Abbey) with servants gossiping about their wealthy, persnickety employers or, in this case, the guests of Morrison's Hotel, the small, fancy residential inn presided over by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins). In that sense the movie is a sort of Victorian-era Separate Tables.

Mrs. Baker, tough and unforgiving, dotes on the fussy, detailed work ethic of her taciturn head waiter, Albert, who she allows to handle her more difficult guests. Mrs. Baker has an eye for the handsome rake Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his lusty companions, while relying on the advice of longtime resident Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson). Meanwhile, pretty Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), one of the maids, falls hard for the studly Joe (Aaron Johnson), a big piece of man-candy with a bad temper who Mrs. Baker hires in a moment of weakness as a handyman.

Albert observes this and more but keeps to himself. Then, the arrival of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer)—who works at the hotel temporarily as a painter and who accidentally learns Albert's secret and then reveals his own gender-bending secret—deepens both the movie and Albert's life. Albert has been dreaming of opening a tobacconist's shop with his life savings. During a visit to Mr. Page's home he is shocked to discover that Page's "wife" is, in fact, a real woman. "She's real!" Albert gasps, startled at a world of possibilities he has never before imagined. After a gorgeously delivered monologue in which he reveals his past, Albert quietly tells Hubert that "life without decency is unbearable" and, taking that maxim to heart, becomes fixated on the idea of pretty Helen becoming his wife. Albert's enlarged fantasy and further plot complications then set into play a tragedy that takes on lyrical proportions as it reaches its conclusion in the adaptation co-scripted by Close and Irish novelist John Banville.

Close and McTeer's performances are easily dismissed as acting tricks—made or broken by their ability to convince you of the reality of them as men rather than drag kings. Within the context of the movie's period in which appearances and one's station in life really could deceive, however, it's easy to believe these women could fool the world around them. The sequence when the two dress up in long gowns and bonnets and gawkily walk about the seaside is all the more wondrous for the level of complexity the actresses bring to the scene—a mixture of unease, remembered familiarity and, finally, exuberance.

McTeer has the much flashier, more memorable part and is, as usual, a pleasure to watch but there's a lot to be said for Close's willingness to remain within the parameters of her character. The role does not provide a single showy moment, which makes the character's revealing monologue all that much more dazzling. The close-mouthed Albert, with his huge interior life, is a psychological cousin to Heath Ledger's Ennis in Brokeback Mountain—and Close's work is no less sensational than his. Other elements—the spot-on production design and costumes, the cast of distinguished Irish actors and Brian Bryne's elegiac score (which concludes with a mournful ballad sung by Sinead O'Connor), all under the director of Rodrigo Garcia—aid Close in beautifully realizing her dream of bringing the multilayered Albert Nobbs so vividly and entertainingly to life.

French writer-director Celine Sciamma follows up her insightful 2007 lesbian teenage romance Water Lilies with Tomboy, another treatise on budding sexuality, this time focusing on 10-year-old Laure (played by the amazing and fearless child actress Zoe Heran). Laure has just moved with her family to a new town on the outskirts of Paris. She meets Lisa (Jeanne Disson) in the apartment building where the family has moved and soon the new friends are playing a game of capture the flag in a wooded area near the building with other kids from the neighborhood. Sciamma, in an unforced manner, establishes an idyllic childhood—new home, loving family, new friends—that is almost palpable.

Laure—with her short haircut and dressed in shorts, T-shirts and gym shoes—has, seemingly without conscious thought, introduced herself as a boy named Mikael to her new friends and they accept her as Mikael. The secret of Laure's anatomic gender only seems to become a problem as the friendships and Lisa's budding romantic interest in her new friend grows. As gender problems have arisen during the days that follow, Laure has come up with simple or creative solutions to get around them. (Invited to go swimming, she simply cuts off the top of her girl's bathing suit and fashions herself a penis out of her sister's Play-Doh.)

Each time Laure passes one of these self-imposed tests, our fear for the child is tremendous. At times, the movie is like a prepubescent version of Boys Don't Cry and you're terrified about what the reaction will be when the truth is discovered. But what exactly is that truth? Neither Sciamma nor her young leading character obviously knows that just yet.

Nor do we. We're not sure if we're seeing a budding lesbian, transgender male or a heterosexual girl who truly is just a tomboy and nothing else. In presenting an open-ended viewpoint, Sciamma gives us something that feels much closer to reality and her low-key approach to such a seemingly complex topic really illuminates the subject in both very basic and rather profound ways. This—along with her facility with actors, especially the children—is a marvel to behold. Tomboy is terrific.

Film note:

—Pedro Almodovar—Spain's pre-eminent queer writer-director—returns to form with his latest film seduction, The Skin I Live In, which also marks the return of Antonio Banderas (after a 21-year absence) to his stable. The movie, an omnisexual mystery thriller, taking its cues from Hitchcock and the French classic Eyes Without a Face, is playing a return theatrical engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., beginning Friday, Jan. 27. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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