September 11, 2012

A life without decency is hardly bearable: How ‘Albert Nobbs’ compares from book to film

Have you ever picked up a book and thought, gee, a lot of the plot points from the film are missing? I hadn’t – until I read The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, the 1918 novella by George Moore.

It feels strange… To have a book rush by at such a swift pace. When reading Albert Nobbs, the story spews out so quickly, so urgently, that you feel tempted to flick back through the pages to make sure you have not turned a few too many.

In contrast, the 2011 film adaptation starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson takes the time to make a true character study. It uses Moore’s original as the framework, and then paints upon it a masterpiece.

One of the key differences, that helped to enliven the film, was the time and space that it afforded Albert to quietly and reluctantly reveal her tragic secrets.

In the film, Albert reacted fearfully – almost to the point of lunacy – when Mr Page (Janet McTerr) discovered her secret. She cowered in the corner of the room, crippled with fear. In the book her reaction was more nonchalant; as if she was relieved to finally be given the opportunity to reveal her true gender.

The film takes some details away from Albert’s past, but adds much more context to her future. By increasing the viewer’s understanding of Albert, it makes her story that much more tragic.

In the book, Albert Nobbs is described as “always merry and bright, with never anyone to speak to.” In the film, she is timid to the point of silence – she always appears meek and shy, and wary of those around her.

The literary Albert is much livelier, boisterous and outspoken, while Glenn Close’s Albert is much more somber and morose – you constantly feel sorry for her, and her miserable, lonely expression. Although she’s grateful for her job, her position, she never seems to go about it happily. Life seems to have no pleasure at all – and that’s the tragedy of the film in a nutshell.

All of the performances in the film are incredible. The role of Albert was made for Glenn Close – I couldn’t imagine anyone else who could have played it as convincingly, or as movingly.

Albert Nobbs was also a stellar, mature career choice for both Wasikowska and Johnson (and lucky ones at that, considering that Amanda Seyfried and Orlando Bloom were originally cast in their roles and only dropped out due to scheduling conflicts).

Wasikowska plays Helen Dawes – a young, beautiful and witty housemaid. In the book, the character is a newcomer to the hotel who is described as “a thick-set, almost swarthy girl of three-and-twenty.” She is more calculating, mischievous and rather less likeable than the vivacious, innocent character that Wasikowska creates.

The film added so many new, interesting layers to the story: the subplot of Dr Holloran’s (Brendan Gleeson) relationship with the housemaid Mary (Maris Doyle Kennedy); the hotel’s financial troubles and the escapades of the wealthy guests; Mrs Baker’s selfish callousness and Mr Page’s relationship with her wife.

Perhaps the most pleasing addition to the story was the scene where Mr Page and Albert gallivant along the beach in petticoats – it added an equal injection of humour and heart.

The only significant scene in the book that was omitted from the film was Albert’s dalliance down the street late at night, when she cried in the rain and caught the attention of a prostitute. This omission was a good one – the scene was hardly memorable and did nothing to add to the reader’s understanding of the story, or of Albert’s character.

The score of the film is magical, playful, and sets the tone perfectly. There is a mystical quality to this film that gives the impression that nothing is as it seems.

The sets, costumes and props are all intricately detailed – the lavishness of the upper class life is clear in every silver spoon and chandelier.

The cinematography is also beautiful – in the scene where Helen cries on Albert’s shoulder, and her tears fall amongst the glistening show, Albert’s ecstasy is tangible.

I’ve never seen a film do so much with so little of a story. George Moore’s novella provides the barest bones of a plot, which Glenn Close has expanded and extrapolated into a whole. She added heart, intrigue and thought, and created deeper, more likeable, real and interesting characters.

The loneliness of Albert’s life’s deception is heartbreaking. It will have you in knots of sorrow as well as discomfort. It makes you question, why do people live such miserable lives?

The big tragedy is that Albert spent her life in hiding. She never ran free, she was never comfortable in her own skin, and she never truly let anyone in. She led a completely guarded life – without any real human connection. Her dreams were never fulfilled. Ultimately, it’s a story on unrequited love – of the callousness of life – and of how human beings can cruelly use one another.

The verdict:
Book or Big Screen? Big Screen
The film is:  5. An exceptional improvement on the original

I would be very happy to receive your comments and feedback on ‘Book or Big Screen’ – please click on the below link to tell me what film adaptation you are excited about, or to suggest the book/film that I should review next.

What’s coming next? A review of Bel Ami

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