Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs and Mia Wasikowska as Helen Dawes
I enjoyed Albert Nobbs. I’m not sure what I expected, but overall the film works well. It’s an oddity in the sense that it was shown in North American festivals last year in time for Oscar nominations for both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and subsequently given a limited release in the US and Canada. Yet it has had to wait until April 27th 2012 for a UK and Ireland release. The film seems to have had some negative reviews in the US and while I don’t agree with the tone of those reviews, some of them do hone in on a central problem that I recognise.
Albert Nobbs is based on a short story by the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), perhaps best known for Esther Waters, his 1894 novel which became a British film in 1948. A realist writer, compared on Wikipedia with Émile Zola, Moore was a genuine internationalist writer having lived in Paris and London and is said to have influenced Joyce. The story of Albert Nobbs is set in Dublin at the end of the 19th century but was written in 1917-18. Albert is revealed to us a little way into the film as a woman who has ‘passed’ for a man in order to achieve the security and relative prosperity associated with being a waiter/butler in a small hotel in Dublin catering for a range of middle-class and upper middle-class customers. One night Albert is ‘found out’ through a chance encounter with a painter and decorator who is also ‘passing’, but who has somehow managed to have a fuller and richer life than Albert who is, quite literally, ‘buttoned up’. Herein lies the driving force of the narrative as Albert aspires to be ‘free’ in some way.
The film has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she first played the role on stage in 1982. After a one failed production (when financing was lost) to be directed by Istvan Szabo, Close collaborated with the novelist John Banville and a new director Rodrigo García, a very experienced Latin American filmmaker with many well-known US TV series in his credits. The film has a starry cast including the very talented Mia Wasikowska and a host of Irish and British stalwarts. It looks terrific and it doesn’t aspire, as I feared it might, to the kind of Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs social class interplay. This is primarily a ‘downstairs’/’backstairs’ drama. I’m sorry to say that the problem is Ms Close, or rather the make-up and costume design that is deemed suitable to make her into Albert. She does look odd, with a rigid face in which seemingly only the eyes move. Dressed formally to ‘walk out’ around Dublin with a bowler perched on her head she seems like an escapee from Woody Allen’s Sleepers or a new android that might appear in Dr Who. All this is thrown into relief by Janet McTeer as ‘Hubert Page’ who makes a completely convincing man (and woman, as one startling scene reveals). None of this is meant as a criticism of Glenn Close’s acting skills as I’m a great admirer. I just think the casting is wrong.
It would be a shame if any worries about the central role meant that audiences missed the other pleasures that the film has to offer. ‘Passing’ narratives like this have a long history and enable a discourse about gender representations from a different angle. For instance, in this narrative it’s instructive to consider all the women in the hotel and how their behaviour is altered by social class and codes of propriety. This being Ireland in 1899 religious prohibitions are also important. But male homosexuality seems less of an issue. I’d like to see the film again in order to explore these issues in more detail. I’m also tempted now to what I think was a wholly successful ‘passing’ narrative – Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (US 1993).
Here’s the US trailer:
Oskar and Basia conduct the ultras of the Flying Pigs team
In her introduction Anna Draniewicz, the festival’s Polish consultant, told us that the leading man in this film, Pawel Małaszynski, was the Brad Pitt of Polish Cinema. This suggested that the film might be ‘popular’ rather than ‘arthouse’ for me and so it proved. Grodzisk is a small town in Western Poland and its football team ‘Czarni’ has just been relegated despite the dedicated support of its ‘ultras’ whose task is to focus on chanting and flag-waving rather than actually watching the game. The ultras are in turn protected from opposing fans by the ‘hools’ – who also attack the opposing fans and attempt to steal their colours. Anyone who prefers to actually watch the game is a ‘picnic’ and sits in the family enclosure.
We are told all of this at the beginning of what is a conventional genre narrative. And it isn’t really a genre about football – or really about sport at all. The relegated team now face the prospect of a local derby against an old enemy, a team that have been bought by a major business – a manufacturer of parts for the international aerospace industry. The company’s logo is a wild boar with wings – hence the film’s title. Our hero Oskar is the leader of the hools of Czarni Grodzisk – but he is also suddenly without an income after he crashes his van. If that isn’t enough he’s now the father of a son born to his girlfriend when he was fighting the police after the last match. He needs money now and the only option is to accept an invitation to work for the Flying Pigs as ‘manager’ of their newly-created ultras. Inevitably, he will face his own brother Piotr and all his ex-mates in the first derby game of the new season. He is also joined by his brother’s girlfriend Basia who loses her job as the (‘live-in’) organist at the local church when the priest tells her that being a hool is not acceptable for someone associated with the church.
The only real surprise is that the film becomes more a mix of family melodrama and dark romantic comedy than a violence-filled narrative about football hools (which the opening section seems to promise). New director Anna Kazejak-Dawid has created a very enjoyable mainstream crowd-pleaser which is handsomely-mounted in ‘Scope and boasts a good soundtrack. The central characters are all attractive young stars and what this demonstrates for me is the relative strength of Polish popular cinema. The festival brochure suggests that the film is like a Polish Green Street (UK/US 2005). I haven’t seen that film, but it sounds unlikely and Keith confirmed that the melodrama element means that the comparison doesn’t really work. I think the tone and the feel of the film is more akin to a widescreen version of a Shane Meadows film like This is England (UK 2006) or even earlier UK social comedies such as the Full Monty (UK 1997). I felt that the film was rooted in its small town sensibility and issues about local ownership and ‘community’ – similar in fact to the themes of Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric (UK 2009).
I don’t think that the film gives any pointers towards fan behaviour at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer. Except that Polish fans seem to have things in common with Italian ultras. I enjoyed this film and it would seem a good choice for a limited release in the UK if a distributor is so inclined.
A team talk in 'Turkey Bowl'
This was the other half of the double bill with Distinguished Flying Cross in the Uncharted States of America strand. At 64 mins this film comes in just below the conventional time length that separates ‘short’ from ‘feature-length’ – and that may be a defining constraint for audiences because this is a fiction narrative that for me required more time to tell a satisfying story.
Writer-director Kyle Smith has imposed some tough constraints on himself with a total of ten characters who play out a game of American Football on a summer’s day in a Los Angeles park. The narrative is composed in what appears to be nearly ‘real time’ (there is conventional cutting between shots but no obvious ellipses in the presentation of events).
Seven of the ten know each other from college and are meeting for their annual game with the winner getting the turkey. One guy brings his girlfriend and two other players just happen to be in the park and are invited to join in. They go through team selection and then play the game. My dissatisfaction is probably because I find the game itself fairly incomprehensible. It isn’t a ‘beautiful game’ but I guess it can be the basis of interesting narratives given time for more background than is possible here. Competitive sport brings out the worst in people so inevitably there is bickering and stand-offs between those who play to win and those who don’t. Race, gender and class become divisive issues, but not quite in the way we might expect. I found several of the group to be simply offensive at first but they are nuanced enough as characters to enable a dramatic narrative to take shape. However, it has nowhere to go, so the final result is like a film school exercise. (I’m not sure why we need to see the whole game – a bit more social interaction would have suited me.) Having said that, it is well-acted, nicely shot and edited and works well in its own terms. I can see why the film was highly praised at the SXSW Festival in Austin. This review from indieWire gives a more sympathetic view and makes some interesting points.
The only known photo of Wade Wilkerson's helicopter in combat
Screened as part of a double bill of short features, Distinguished Flying Cross is a 61 minute documentary about a US Army helicopter pilot sent to Vietnam in 1965. According to the festival brochure, Film Comment named director Travis Wilkinson as one of the top avant-garde filmmakers currently active. This turned out to be rather a misleading introduction to the film which is actually a conventionally structured eye-witness documentary. The simple structure uses title cards to announce questions and chapter headings for the statements of Warrant Officer Wilkerson who is shown in a head-on shot flanked by his two sons. The trio drink beer and mull over the father’s memories. Intercut with these scenes are clips of the war taken by unnamed army filmmakers (including some interesting footage of local bands playing for the Americans) and acquired by Travis Wilkerson via US National Archives.
Wade Wilkerson has an extraordinary memory from which he digs out some matter-of-fact observations of what happened and why. He was in Vietnam because he wanted to fly civil jetliners and the only way to get such jobs was via military training. He would have needed a college degree to get into the Navy or Airforce but the Army took him without questions. He wasn’t a very good soldier according to his own account and the incident which earned him the DFC, although certainly heroic on his part, was probably awarded for the wrong reason. An excellent raconteur, Wade tells an interesting story well exposing the bullshit as he puts it. I enjoyed the tales (most of which are familiar enough from the well-known books on the war such as Michael Herr’s Despatches or Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War) – but I don’t think I’ve heard the specific helicopter pilot perspective before. This perspective is also important because this was 1965 when the US was supposedly ‘aiding’ South Vietnam and the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Wade is quite illuminating about what it was like to be a mature student at a university a few years later.
If this pops up on TV at some point, I would recommend it.