Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer
Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Mother and Child”)
Written by: Glenn Close (debut), John Banville (“The Last September”), Gabriella Prekop (“VII. Oliver”)
When it comes to cross-dressing and film, male characters color coordinating handbags and heels are typically played for laughs (“Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Tootsie,” “The Birdcage”). Those films wherein a female character shows off her masculine side tend more to the dramatic (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Yentl”). Sure, there are exceptions, but in Hollywood a boy in pantyhose is funny; a girl speaking in a lower register is just too heartbreaking to imagine.
That gender-bending double standard carries over to the occasionally sympathetic but more often stagnant period drama “Albert Nobbs.” Adapted from a short story by Irish novelist George Moore, Nobbs stars five-time Academy Award-nominee Glenn Close (“Dangerous Liaisons”) as a woman living in 19th-century Dublin who disguises herself as a man so she can work as a waiter in an upscale hotel. Waiting on stuffy guests, “Albert” is saving each shilling she earns so she can purchase her own tobacco shop. When Albert’s secret is accidentally revealed, however, her once seemingly attainable dream evolves into something much more complicated.
As Albert, Close takes on the most daring role of her career since the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction.” The physical look of the character may not be nearly as unbelievable as Julie Andrews’ in the 1982 musical comedy “Victor Victoria,” but even the noteworthy makeup and prosthetics are a bit bizarre looking. Confined inside her black suit and tie for most of the film, it’s Close’s nervous glances, awkward smiles, and perfunctory movements that actually bring to life this reclusive human being whose character depth should be far more involved than the one-dimensional script would have you believe. “Such a kind little man,” one hotel guest says when describing Albert to her husband. Unfortunately, the rest of the screenplay doesn’t do much better in bringing Albert to light.
Credited as a co-writer, Close, who also wrote the lyrics for the original song “Lay Your Head Down” sung by Sinead O’Connor, cuts corners when attempting to expand on the emotional agony Albert endures. It’s only during a few scenes where she speaks candidly with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a house painter also facing an identity crisis, when a more meaningful narrative is exposed beyond the tea parties and gossiping help. McTeer, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1999 for “Tumbleweeds,” matches Close shot for shot when they share the screen. The collaboration is poignant, but ultimately gets sidelined in favor of an insignificant relationship between a naive young maid (Mia Wasikowska) and an insensitive maintenance man (Aaron Johnson). Also lost somewhere inside the script is actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“Match Point”), who shows up as a hotel guest for no legitimate reason other than to don Victorian Era garb.
Directed by Rodrigo García, whose last film was the touching 2009 drama “Mother and Child,” “Albert Nobbs” is a picture lacking passion and genuine conflict. It’s also missing that great sense of female empowerment it desperately wants to convey; in fact, it seemingly has no idea where to begin. Putting Albert in a dress and sending him to run on a beach just doesn’t cut it.
When filmmaker Rodrigo García began to write his most recent film “Mother and Child” 10 years ago, he knew he had a lot to say but wasn’t sure if he had enough experience to say it.
“It took me a long time to finish because I don’t think I had enough writing chops to do what I was trying to do,” García, 50, told me during an interview. “But the story never left me. I never lost interest in it.”
A decade later, “Mother and Child” is the film García knew he always had in him. The story follows the lives of three women (Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, and Kerry Washington) and their personal encounters with the adoption process.
During our interview, García, who is the son of Colombian writer and Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Gabriel García Márquez (“Love in the Time of Cholera”), talked about the type of research he did for the film and why he enjoys writing female characters more than male characters.
How much about the adoption process did you know before writing the story?
I had read up on it but not the kind of adoption that we live with today. Adoption now has many shapes and it depends a lot on the culture and the laws. What captured my imagination originally wasn’t even adoption. It was this idea of people being forcefully separated and having to live their lives in each other absence. It made me think of the old adoption system: closed adoption. The whole process was cloaked in secrecy. Much of it was based on shame. There was an embarrassment when an unwed girl got pregnant. But as the years went by, the babies were haunted by not being able to know what their biological roots were. They wanted to know where they came from. I thought it was a good setting for a story about separation.
Over the last 10 years you have been working on this story, how much did it evolve?
It didn’t change essentially that much. It took me a long time to finish because I don’t think I had enough writing chops to do what I was trying to do. I hadn’t written that much and the structure of this movie was difficult. Although I knew what I wanted to say and I knew where the major milestones in the story went I just didn’t have enough experience writing to put it together. But the story never left me. I never lost interest in it.
Were you able to talk to any women who placed their children for adoption?
I didn’t talk to too many, but I read a lot of accounts, memoirs, and interviews. A lot of women wrote about their experiences in books and magazines. Again, the situations are varied. The movie does not cover all angles on adoption. I did read about some women placing their babies for adoption who were very young and had no choice. Some of them never recuperated from that decision.
Ultimately then, this is more of a story about loss. Where did you find the inspiration to write about this type of tragedy?
Thankfully, it’s from nothing personal. I think if you’re a parent, you’re always very moved by events where other parents are separated from their children. It might not be something as tragic as this, but it could be something like divorce or exile or serving in the military. When I started looking at adoption what interested me was how we accept the things in our lives that we cannot control and how we make our peace with that.
During your research, did you find the idea of adoption to be different in the Latino culture because of how family-orientated it is?
The research that I did was mostly on Anglo women in the U.S. in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. But growing up in Mexico City, yes, I see that it’s not uncommon – even in the case of unwanted pregnancies – that the family keeps the baby. I think that is a cultural thing. I think in Latino cultures it’s probably just as likely that the family will keep the baby even if the mom is very young.
Most of your films are centered on female characters. Is it just as easy for you to write male characters?
I’m getting better at writing male characters. First of all I’m more attracted to female characters. They’re different for me. It’s more exotic. I find [male characters] a little harder to write because they all feel too close to me. But I think I’m getting better at it and I’m enjoying it more. I think I’ll probably have more and more men in my movies in the future.
So, how are Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits’ characters in “Mother and Child” different from male characters you’ve written in the past?
Well, I thought the women in the film were already complicated enough. They have wants and are grieving over things that have marked their lives and have shaped their personalities and behavior. I thought it would be interesting to put two good men in their way. Very often in movies with female-central characters the men are the antagonists or the romantic interests/antagonists. The men are obstacles. The men are problematic. But I wanted the women to be their own problem. I thought it would be interesting to put them against two men who are different. They are both men of maturity who are sensitive and sensible who accept the women as they are.
Why do you think Hollywood isn’t producing more strong female characters for film?
I think to some extend the market is driven by the box office. The box office favors movies for younger males who want to see the action movie or the R-rated comedy or the superhero movie. Certainly, there is a market for tweeners and teenage women. Everything from “Hannah Montana” to the “Twilight” series confirms that. I think it when you’re making movies for adults it gets more difficult.
Do you ever feel pressure as a writer because of who your father is?
When I started writing I didn’t want the writing to be bad. But it’s been a while, so people know what my world is and what things I’ve done so I don’t think I’m necessarily measured by that yardstick anymore.
Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington
Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”)
Written by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”)
It’s never been more evident how well director/writer Rodrigo Garcia knows his female characters than with his most recent work “Mother and Child.” The film tells the story of three women who have all been affected differently by the adoption process. Through an intelligent and multilayered narrative, Garcia, who is the son of Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”), takes the often-sensitive subject and instills some realism into a series of poignant moments that will easily break your heart.
Forced to place her baby for adoption at the age of 14, Karen (Annette Bening), who is now a grown woman, has spent her entire life regretting the choice her mother made for her years ago. The decision has left a gaping hole inside Karen and shaped the bitter relationship she has always shared with her elderly mother. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a cynical, hard-working lawyer who was adopted as a child and knows little about the woman who gave her up. Filling the constant void in her life through empty sexual affairs, including one with her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson), Elizabeth reaches a crossing point where she decides she wants to know where she comes from. Finally, Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a hopeful mother currently seeking out a child to adopt with her husband after being unable to conceive on her own.
As the stories weave together, Garcia is able to avoid most of the melodramatic pitfalls until the final act. By then, these women have exposed their souls to the audience. Their unhappiness and resentment toward the fate that has been handed to them is a compelling look at the significance motherhood has in each of their lives. As the always-off-putting Karen, Bening (the first real Oscar-worthy performance of the year) is fantastic as is the rest of the cast, which includes Jimmy Smits as her soft-hearted love interest who can’t seem to find a way to break through Karen’s callous personality.
More than a story about adoption, “Mother and Child” is about loss and surviving those disappointing and life-altering moments that define who you are. Garcia may not be very subtle in exhibiting the pain these women are experiencing, but you have to respect the way he boldly confronts the issue with a unique blend of passion, empathy, and intimacy.