A woman masquerades as a man in 19th century Ireland, working in a hotel, hoping to save enough money to buy a tobacco shop.
Meet Albert Nobbs. Hotel waiter. Debonair gentleman. Quiet. Keeps to himself. He works as a waiter at Morrison’s Hotel under a rather officious boss, Mrs. Baker. Every night, after being paid for the day, he goes to his room, opens the floor boards and adds his latest earnings to his collection. At last count he has 4 shillings, 8 pence. His dream is to have enough money to own a tobacco shop in the city. To be his own boss, have his own life.
Albert Nobbs also has a secret – he is in actuality a woman in disguise.
One day, Mrs. Baker hires a painter named Hubert Page to beautify the hotel. Due to a shortage of rooms, he is to bunk with Albert for the night. Albert tries to wiggle out of this arrangement, since he doesn’t want to risk Hubert discovering his secret. Of course, Albert can’t say no to his boss and in the end must stand down and live with this arrangement. “If Mr. Page is pleased to share my bed, he’s welcome, I’m sure.” It is only for one night, after all.
Albert goes to his room and sees that Hubert has already made himself at home, lying on the bed, sleeping. Albert follows his example, gets in bed and tries to sleep but is abruptly awakened by something. He gets out of bed and frantically takes off his shirt and corset – there was a flea inside, and he hates fleas.
After the excitement is over, he slowly turns around and sees that Hubert saw the whole thing and now knows Albert’s secret – but promises he won’t say a word.
The next morning, Albert acts awkward around Hubert as he paints; exhausted by this behavior, Hubert shuts the door and flashes his shirt open in front of Nobbs. It turns out Hubert, too, is a woman in disguise. Albert is intrigued to find a kindred spirit and inquires all about Hubert’s life. Most intriguing of all to Albert is the fact that Hubert has a wife.
Meanwhile, at another hotel, young ruffian Joe Mackins is fired for dropping a rich man’s luggage. He wanders around the streets until he is found by Mrs. Baker, who assumes he is the man she hired to fix the boiler at Morrison’s. She takes him to the boiler, which he manages to fix serendipitously, and thus earns himself a full time job as a boiler man.
Joe finds himself attracted to one of the maids working at the hotel, Helen, and the two begin a relationship. Though, we quickly find out that he’s a brute, a jerk, and an alcoholic.
While out on a stroll, Albert stops in to visit Hubert and his wife, Cathleen. Here we get the best scene of the film, where Albert talks to Hubert one-on-one about his dream of opening a tobacco shop, and more importantly, his backstory. Albert was a bastard child left with no real idea of who her parents were. At age 14, he (or she, back then) had to go to work…
“Thought I’d die living among such rough people,” he says. She was forced to change her gender after an incident involving five men: “They caught me and pulled me apart. It was under the stairs…they hurt me, and then they left me there.” Soon after, there was a job opening for a waiter; Albert found a second-hand suit of clothes and applied under the guise of a man.
Enchanted by Hubert’s relationship with Cathleen, Nobbs goes off in search of a wife, and sets his sights on Helen.
Albert asks Helen out on a series of awkward dates, all the while buying expensive gifts in an attempt to impress her. However, the only one impressed is Joe, who Helen reports to after each date. He pushes her to get Albert to buy her more and more expensive gifts, and sure enough, Albert complies.
Meanwhile, people are starting to fall ill in the city – Typhoid. The hotel loses many of its customers, and Cathleen, afflicted by the illness, dies. Albert tries to console Hubert, and the two go out on the beach, free of their disguises for once.
Albert discovers Helen is pregnant with Joe’s child. “He’ll leave you here. You and the baby,” he says. Albert asks for her hand in marriage, but she refuses.
That night, Joe and Helen get into a loud argument. Albert tries one last time to get Helen to marry him. Joe shows up and pushes Albert into the wall, where he hits his head. The commotion continues as Albert feebly makes
his way back to his room, lies on the bed, and dies.
The hotel doctor goes into Albert’s room and discovers he is a woman; this development finds its way to Mrs. Baker, who discovers Albert’s money under the floorboards and takes it for herself to get the hotel out of its financial problems. She hires Hubert to paint the hotel again, and he encounters Helen outside.
Helen tells Hubert that Joe left her alone with the baby, and that she is working for Mrs. Baker for free. However, it’s only a matter of time before her baby is taken away and she is left on the street. Hubert promises to look after her and the child.
For the most part, this film (based on a novella by George Moore) wasn’t bad – especially the first half. Learning the truth about Albert, and then the subsequent meeting between him and Hubert, and how they compared notes on being men was well done. It’s not until Albert shifts his attention to Helen does the film go off the rails. There was no connection or chemistry between the two at all. That was the point, of course, but Albert should have realized this and given up on her!
Why did Albert want to marry Helen in the first place? He’s envious of Hubert and Cathleen’s relationship. He wanted a wife, and Helen was the best of the lot. That’s it. Albert knew she was seeing Joe, and there was no indication that she would be as open-minded as Cathleen, anyway.
The typhoid epidemic comes and goes quickly, and seems to have just been an excuse to kill off Cathleen. I’m not too fond of this development.
The ending sure was nihilistic, too. It almost makes the whole film a bit pointless: Albert dies in a fight over a girl who doesn’t like him, then his cantankerous boss takes all his money. The only thing preventing the film from being a total tragedy is Hubert saving Helen and the baby at the end. It’s a small, almost negligible consolation though.
Albert devoted his life to chasing a dream, and all he got out of it in the end was…nothing, which leaves a depressing ending. That’s perfectly fine, but for an effective downer ending, there has to be a sliver of hope that gets taken away from the protagonist. In Albert Nobbs, there is no hope because there is no way Helen was going to marry Albert. Thus, all his efforts – and pretty much everything we see in the second half of the film – is futile.
An integral part of this film, and it delivered. Glenn Close does an impeccable job portraying Albert, as does Janet McTeer, who, in her performance as Hubert, plays a man slightly more convincing than the main star. Both deserve the kudos, not to mention all the awards and award nominations, they got. After filming Albert Nobbs, the pair would reunite just a year later in the final season of Damages.