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Fellow Oscar nominees Close (left) and McTeer.
Patrick Redmond/Roadside Attractions
The Dinner : Split-pea soup, at the Owl & Thistle (808 Post Alley).

The Movie

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A Cheap, Celtic Date With Glenn Close

albert_blog.jpg
Fellow Oscar nominees Close (left) and McTeer.
Patrick Redmond/Roadside Attractions
The Dinner: Split-pea soup, at the Owl & Thistle (808 Post Alley).

The Movie: Albert Nobbs, at the Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.)

The Screenplate: 1890s Dublin is the setting for Glenn Close's Oscar-bait drama of cross-dressing and repressed emotion; and her character, the prim and proper Albert, even happens to be a waiter in a residential hotel. The movie therefore demands Irish food before or after the show, meaning an Irish eatery that you might somehow uncover in Dublin. That, of course, diminishes one's dining options in Seattle, where there are plenty of Irish bars but few restaurants that actually serve Celtic cuisine. But the life choices for poor, meek Albert are even fewer, so let's consider Seattle's Irish food possibilities first...

"Irish food" may be an oxymoron, since boiled cabbage and potatoes are meant to prevent starvation, not satisfy the discerning diner. Irish food is by definition cheap, the stuff of farmers and factory workers seeking to stretch every last pence (or today, Euro). In general, Irish food is whatever is served with beer--sometimes there's a deal on sausages; sometimes biscuits and gravy are even cheaper. I say that as a penny-pincher with Irish blood in my family ancestry; and I consider stinginess a virtue and the Owl & Thistle a bargain spot for lunch or dinner. Spend less on food, after all, and you've got more money left for the Guinness.

Albert Nobbs is also a miser. He--let's just use the male pronoun throughout--carefully calculates his wages, tips, and savings in a ledger at the end of each day at the Morrison Hotel. With room and board supplied by his employer (Pauline Collins), Albert has amassed a small fortune of nearly 600 pounds beneath the floorboards. But how to spend it? Sexless Albert knows only thrift for companionship. He's a polite, solitary hoarder--content but unaware of his own happiness until he meets housepainter Hubert (Janet McTeer, also nominated for an Oscar alongside Close), who harbors a similar secret.

Where Albert is all introvert, white gloves concealing his very soul, Hubert is a brash, butch, funny extrovert--flirting with the maids at Morrison's, demanding the happiness that is life's due. (In the movie's best scene, which I won't spoil, Hubert reveals his secret...err, secrets... to temporary roommate Albert.) And Hubert has a wife! This bit of news is Albert's undoing. Utterly unprepared to woo, he sets out after hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who's already being romanced by bad-boy butler Joe (Aaron Johnson).

Maybe it's owing to the craze for Downton Abbey, but it's the interplay among the Irish staff at the Morrison Hotel that works best in Albert Nobbs. Changing the linen, serving the meals, and ignoring the transgressions of their well-heeled guests, Albert and company are like the 99 percent of Occupy Wall Street today. Their moneyed "betters" are certainly no better than they; and their dreams of emigration to America are as poignant as the fantasies of any lottery-ticket buyer at the 7-Eleven today. They slave away in an unfair system where class and custom are stacked against the little man. And is it so wrong for a little man such as Albert to dream of better things? Just a tobacco shop and a wife and a modest living?

I, ever sensing a famine or recession just around the corner, prefer even lower aspirations. From the chalkboard at the Owl & Thistle, I select the split-pea soup with ham and bacon (plus a bit of chewy bread set on the side). With a pint of Mack & Jack's, that sets me back all of $10.30, which is my kind of meal--cheap, tasty, and warm on a chilly January night. It wouldn't work for a date, as Albert contemplates with Helen (a bit of a hustler, she), but once you've given up dreams of marriage, soup and a book will suffice for company. The Owl isn't romantic, and it's fast becoming more of a hole-in-the-wall with a new office tower rising across the alley. The menu isn't very large or grand, but it's also inexpensive--one reason it's a favorite of downtown lunchgoers and ferry commuters.

On a day off from Morrison's, Albert might even eat at the Owl, though it's a bit beneath his standards. ("Life without decency is unbearable" is his credo.) So timid, mild, and repressed, Albert is alienated from society, a stranger to his own past. After 30 years of dressing and behaving as a man, he tells Hubert, wearing a skirt as a female is a forgotten life. "I can't remember what it's like."

And though the role is clearly precious to Close, who first played Albert on stage 30 years ago and produced the movie (directed by Rodrigo Garcia), this waiter is too much of a waiter. Albert is so pent-up and mild as to be effaced from the scene; he's the least colorful character in the picture. (Garcia, perhaps sensing this, allocates many scenes to Joe and Helen, making them almost a pair of film-noir schemers after Albert's loot.) McTeer, with a considerably smaller role than Close's, delivers far more vitality to the movie. Just as Albert is intensely curious about Hubert's home life and spouse, we, too, want to spend more time with him. The movie, such a passion project for Close, is curiously lacking in passion (though certainly well-wrought). Its hero reminds you of T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock--"Do I dare disturb the universe?" Albert asks himself just that question, makes a valiant gesture in the right direction, then retires to his room.

 
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