Albert Nobbs

Author: Gabriella Prekop & John Banville & Glenn Close
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 7
Writer’s Potential: 7

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In 1890s Ireland, a woman impersonates a man in order to work and finds herself wanting a wife.


ALBERT NOBBS — a small, somewhat oddball man — works as a servant in Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin, a middle-class place that aspires to more. The maids — POLLY, EMMA, MARY, and HELEN, all pretty young women — pay little attention. The hotel proprietor, MRS. BAKER, has the exact same dress and attitude as her hotel, carrying a regal air that doesn’t quite match her clothing. In the evening, Albert waits tables with PATRICK (70s, deaf and a bit senile) and SEAN (40s, a plump drinker). He catches Helen looking at him out of the corner of his eye. She makes an amusing face at him when he watches. The hotel patrons — the MOORE family, a French couple named PIGOT, and DR. HOLLORAN, among others — respect Albert and tip him well despite his quiet disposition. When Mrs. Baker notices a stain on Sean’s tie, she chastises him, reminding him that hundreds of young men are in need of work. Sean apologizes.

The obnoxious VISCOUNT YARRELL and MR. SMYTHE-WILLARD and their respective wives interrupt the quiet dinner. They treat the servants with little respect and pretend the other guests don’t exist. After dinner, Yarrell runs Albert ragged with requests, browbeating him all the way, but it’s all worth it — he tips exceedingly well. Albert goes to his private room, counts his money, and documents it in a well-worn ledger. He hides it, along with plenty of other money, under the floorboards in his room. At a nearby hotel, JOE (an angry, gregarious porter) is fired after accidentally dropping guests’ baggage. HUBERT PAGE (40s), a painter, sees the unfair dismissal and recommends a nearby hotel he knows, Morrison’s. Hubert tells Joe to mention his name to Mrs. Baker. Joe gripes that he doesn’t want to work in another hotel. Albert rushes around, fetching flowers and stationery for guests. Hubert arrives, to everyone’s surprise and Mrs. Baker’s delight. She immediately figures out parts of the hotel that need touching up and offers Albert’s room to share with Hubert. Albert makes a lot of excuses, but Mrs. Baker won’t hear them. Ironically, Hubert isn’t any more enthusiastic about sharing the room than Albert is.

Albert waits until Hubert falls asleep before changing into his bedclothes and joining him. He panics the entire time he changes, fearing Hubert might wake. Once Albert is ready, he lies in the bed. Before long, Albert leaps from the bed, suddenly stricken and twitching. Odd blotches cover his shoulder. In a panic, Albert forgets himself and rips off his nightshirt, just as Hubert wakes up. Albert’s body is crammed together by a tight corset, which hides distinctly female breasts. Hubert is shocked, yet a little amused. Albert, however, is even more panicked — and angry, since the fleas that have apparently infested him/her must have come from Hubert. Hubert asks the obvious questions: why, and how long? Albert will only say that she’s been working at Morrison’s for 19 years. Albert decides to sleep on the floor, allowing Hubert to stay in the bed in exchange for his silence. Hubert gets over the shock and falls asleep quite quickly. Albert spends the entire night on edge, not sleeping at all.

The next morning, things are awkward between Albert and Hubert — but he doesn’t betray the secret. Albert spends the full day jittery and terrified, but she’s still great at her job. Albert keeps trying to get Hubert alone so they can talk in secret, but the hotel keeps bustling. Albert feels a tinge of jealousy when Helen starts asking all manner of questions about Hubert. When Albert finally gets Hubert alone, he vows once again to keep the secret. Albert can’t be sure, but Hubert — after checking to ensure their complete privacy — removes his own shirt, revealing female breasts. Albert is stunned. Later, when they’re alone again, Hubert tells her story: she married a drunken house-painter, and after a particularly vicious beating, Hubert got fed up and took his gear, assumed a male identity, and started to get work. Albert is stunned to learn that Hubert remarried — a lonely dressmaker, who agreed to enter into the sham marriage as a combination of financial and emotional arrangement. That night, Mrs. Baker pays Hubert and sends him on his way, lamenting that she can’t afford more work. Albert reels from Hubert’s story, feeling possibilities she’d never considered opening up. She fantasizes about what Hubert’s life must be like — and then begins to fantasize about what her life could be like if she managed to take a wife. She finds a button that popped off Hubert’s overcoat and clings to it as if it can provide all the answers.

Joe, having failed to find work elsewhere, arrives at Morrison’s. A frantic Polly mistakes him for a boiler repairman, a role Joe decides to assume in order to get the job. Although Mrs. Baker doesn’t exactly believe him, she agrees to keep Joe on as a handyman if he can repair the boiler. Baker forces Albert to show Joe to his room. Joe immediately senses something off about Albert, but he can’t put his finger on what it is. The entire group, except for Joe, prepares the dining room for a decadent “fancy dress” party for the guests. Albert and the other servants don’t dress in costumes. While the party goes on, Joe attempts to repair the boiler, but he fails. Joe lets out his frustration by flirting with Helen. She’s immediately attracted to him. After an extended makeout session, Joe returns to the boiler — and he fixes it.

Albert continues to fantasize about Hubert’s life, while Joe has a fantasy of his own — he and Helen. The next morning, Dr. Holloran notices Albert’s odder-than-usual behavior and asks why she’s so distant. She confesses that she’s thinking of the future, of marrying and buying a little shop that could be run by a man with the assistance of a good woman. Dr. Holloran suggests a tobacconist or newsagent. Albert wonders why she couldn’t do both in the same shop. Now, Albert begins fantasizing about a shop of her own, and a possible wife. That night, MILLY MOORE — daughter of the Moore family — rushes to Albert and hops on her lap, upset about a bad dream. The intimate touch makes Albert both uncomfortable and desirous. Milly’s NURSE comes after her. Albert agrees to warm some milk and honey. While she does so, Albert spots Joe and Helen having sex outside in the laundry yard. Joe comes inside. His very presence unnerves Albert. The milk ends up boiling over, scalding her hand.

The next day, Albert wanders Dublin, looking for available space for a shop. When Albert refuses to allow Joe to help him carry bags for two female guests, Joe gets a sense of Albert’s greed — and, seeing the tip, he gets an idea. Albert tells Mrs. Baker he found Hubert’s button and begs for his address and the time off to return it. Mrs. Baker grants it. Albert goes to Howth and finds Hubert’s dressmaker shop. Hubert introduces her to CATHLEEN, his wife. Albert is stunned and fascinated. Cathleen insists Albert stay for dinner. Hubert finally gives Albert the chance to tell her own story: she was a bastard, raised by a nanny with a generous allowance from her mother’s family. When Albert’s mother died suddenly, the allowance was eliminated, keeping Albert out of school and forcing her to fend for herself among the poorest in Dublin. At age 15, Albert’s nanny died, leaving her completely alone. Not long after, five drunk men viciously attacked and raped her. From that day forward, Albert decided to live as a man, to escape the poverty. She worked her way up to working at the biggest places in England before settling at Morrison’s. Hubert tells Albert to find the right woman to share her life with and get married.

Albert returns to Morrison’s, thinking seriously about Helen — but Helen is with Joe. Joe spots Albert and insists on taking her out to the pub. Albert’s not a drinker or a smoker, and she doesn’t particularly enjoy either. Word has already spread about Albert’s plans to marry. Joe suggests Helen, saying he’s not the marrying type. Albert’s appreciative of the blessing. When she gets back to Morrison’s, she asks Helen out. She’s reluctant. Helen talks it over with Joe. Joe orders her to go out with Albert, to find out what Albert really wants and how much money she has. Albert takes Helen out in Dublin. She’s surprised and annoyed by her desire to spend money, trying to pinch every penny but ending up spending a lot on her because she wants to buy her love. Albert doesn’t realize things are going poorly with Helen, who’s merely exploiting her for the money. Albert is mentally planning their future together. Helen talks things over with Joe, who tells her to continue exploiting Albert until they get enough money out of her to travel to America. Albert drags Helen to the storefront she’s picked out for their shop. She springs her plans on Helen, who is less than enthusiastic — she’s spent her whole life trying to get out of rundown neighborhoods like the one the shop’s in. That night, Albert overhears Helen and Dr. Holloran talking — she’s pregnant. Helen complains to Joe that Albert’s too cheap to simply give away money. They’re lucky she’s buying Helen things. Joe tells her to keep things going with Albert, but she refuses, throwing Joe into a violent rage.

The next day, a young kitchen maid comes up with scarlet fever. Soon, the government turns the guests away and temporarily shuts down the hotel. Most of the staff is stricken with the disease — including Albert, who refuses medical attention. After a long struggle, her fever breaks. Patrick dies. Helen struggles to tell Joe about her pregnancy, but she can’t find the words. Instead, she gives him a note — but Joe can’t read. Mrs. Baker offers Joe Patrick’s old job, because he’s proven his worth during the outbreak of fever, helping out. Once he’s a little better, Albert finds out most of the area has been struggling with the fever. Albert returns to Hubert’s house and sees her wearing a black mourning band. Cathleen passed on. Albert is sympathetic. When Hubert wonders what he’ll do without her companionship, Albert quietly suggests that they marry, or move somewhere and live as sisters. Distraught, Hubert and Albert put on dresses, both living as women for the first time in decades. They wander outside and walk on the beach, but it’s just not working. Albert returns to Morrison’s, redressed as a man. She overhears Helen and Joe fighting.

Albert and Helen go out again. Helen is shocked when Albert flat-out asks her to marry. She complains that they haven’t even kissed. Albert says she loved her nanny but never had to kiss her. This confuses Helen, as does the ineffectual peck on the cheek Albert gives her. Helen gives Albert a full, passionate kiss — now it’s Albert’s turn to be confused. Helen storms away, breaking it off for good. Albert follows, insisting that Joe won’t take care of her. He’ll abandon Helen and the baby and go to America alone. Helen is shocked that Albert knows so much, but she denies Joe will leave. She gets away from Albert. A prostitute solicits Albert. Desperate for the companionship, she’s tempted, but she turns the woman down.

When Albert returns to the hotel, she overhears Joe, Helen, and the other maids mocking her. Joe invites Sean to his room to drink. He forces Sean to read the letter from Helen. Joe is shocked and angry about the baby. He doesn’t have any idea what to do. The rumors fly, and Mrs. Baker wants to fire them both. Albert uses this opportunity to once again try to persuade Helen to marry her — she’ll never have to worry about being fired or not being taken care of. Drunk, Joe storms in and gets in Albert’s face. Timid, Albert backs away. Joe goes after Helen, which finally sets Albert off — but she’s not strong enough to fight him. Albert shoves her to the floor, knocking Albert unconscious, briefly. Helen’s enraged at Joe’s treatment. The other servants rush in, pulling Joe away from Helen. They scream at each other as the others try to restrain both of them. Albert regains consciousness and uses the distraction to sneak back to her room — but she’s bleeding from the ear and the back of her head. Albert climbs into bed.

Joe leaves the hotel, permanently. Albert fantasizes about living with Helen, just before she dies from the head injury. The following morning, the servants are surprised that Albert won’t answer his door. They send in Dr. Holloran, who performs an examination and realizes Albert’s true gender. The others are baffled. Mrs. Baker brings the news to Hubert, who feigns shock. She brings Hubert back to the hotel to do more painting. Helen cozies up to Hubert, introducing him to her new baby, Albert Joseph. Helen is desperately afraid that her baby will be taken away. Hubert tells her that can’t happen. Helen asks what he means, and as the camera pulls away, it’s clear that Hubert is making a similar proposition to Albert’s.


Albert Nobbs tells a tragic story about the lengths certain women will go to in order to be left alone, only to have their lives consumed by feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. The script has plenty of interesting ideas, but ultimately, it struggles to justify its characters’ decisions, and its unhappy ending feels unearned. As written, it merits a pass.

The first act attempts to make Albert’s gender a mystery, but it’s fairly easy to guess that her quirky behavior and fierce protection of her privacy meant she was hiding her female identity. Hubert’s reveal is a much bigger and more satisfying surprise, yet it’s downplayed because the twist exists only to get Albert thinking about the possibilities of curing her loneliness. The writers seem to want to turn the Albert-Helen-Joe relationship into a love triangle in the second act, but the plot gets in the way, devoting too much time to Joe’s scheming and Helen’s devotion to his plans. Rather than allowing Albert to slowly figure out what she really wants in her pathetic, childlike way, the writers force her to fail, and force audiences to watch it, knowing exactly what’s going to happen long before Albert has a clue.

This leads to the unsatisfying third act, which gets preoccupied with a scarlet fever outbreak. The outbreak does little for either the story or characters, other than adding a bit of period detail and giving Helen a nice potential “husband” at the end, thanks to process of elimination. More importantly, killing Albert at the end is simply the wrong move for the story. Albert didn’t necessarily require a happy ending where she gets everything she wants and lives happily ever after, but killing her feels like a cheat. It’s tragedy for the sake of tragedy — an abrupt end to the story rather than a true resolution.

Maybe this is because Albert remains such an enigma throughout. The real mystery, one the script doesn’t devote much time to, is why Albert decides she needs a companion of any sort. When she explains why she chose to live like this — didn’t want to live in poverty, hated the way men treated her — she gave the impression that she wanted to shun humanity as much as possible. Her behavior in the first act supports this, but later in the script, Albert seems to imply that it just never occurred to her that she could have all the things Hubert has — things she apparently wanted. It rings false that she’d want these things, though. Her cluelessness about people and relationships speaks to more than just ignorance — it comes across like flat-out disinterest. Albert’s fantasy sequences, allegedly showing her desires, don’t add as much to her character as the writers seem to think. They just depict things that Albert’s actions contradict. Making it clear why Albert feels she needs a wife would go a long way toward making the story more believable.

The supporting characters are a nuanced bunch. With the exception of Joe, Helen, and Hubert, none of them contribute much more than atmosphere, but they each have a handful of quirks that make them feel a bit real. Joe and Helen, on the other hand, are a bit thin. Albert’s fixation on Helen never really makes much sense, except from a plot standpoint. She doesn’t say or do much to make it clear that this is the one person, above all others, that is the right choice for a wife. Although Joe has a few moments of surprising depth (such as his pathetic attempts to learn to read), he serves as little more than a stereotypically macho foil to Albert’s timid “man.”

Only one thing can redeem this script: a great actor playing Albert. A great performance can fill all the gaps in the writing and make material that doesn’t quite seem to make sense into a complete, tragic figure.

Posted by D. B. Bates on February 2, 2010 2:29 PM