Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lure of hidden truths

A week after the Oscars, Rodrigo Garcia, director of period drama Albert Nobbs, is upbeat.

By John Lui

The film about a woman passing as a man in 19th-century Dublin was nominated for three Academy Awards, but won none.

Speaking to Life! on the telephone from Los Angeles, Garcia, 52, says he had just written an e-mail to lead actress Glenn Close.

Close, nominated in the Best Actress category for playing the title character, lost to Meryl Streep for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011).

In his e-mail, he said the making of Albert Nobbs 'had been an incredible journey, a 20-year journey for her, the main engine behind it'.

'Now, Albert exists forever. I was very happy,' says the Colombian-born Garcia, who began a career in Hollywood 30 years ago as a camera operator and cinematographer. The film is still in cinemas.

Close had played Albert in its stage version in 1982 and struggled to find funding to make a movie version. The play was itself a dramatisation of a short story by turn-of-the-century novelist George Moore.

The movie about the woman who yearns to live life as a proper man of means, with a wife and a business of her own, was based on the short story, not the play, says Garcia.

Written by Close and a team of writers, the script enlarged the role of Hubert Page, the house painter whom Nobbs discovers is also a woman in man's clothing.

Actress Janet McTeer played Page to wide acclaim, earning her a Supporting Actress Oscar nod alongside Close. McTeer lost to Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2011).

Close and the writing team felt that the relationship between Nobbs and Page, and between Nobbs and the cleaning maid Helen (played by Mia Wasikowska) needed to be more sharply defined because they were 'the engine of the movie', motivating Nobbs to risk his safe but repressed life for the chance of something more fulfilling.

The film opened late last year in the United States to moderately positive reviews. There was a general feeling that the pursuit of the young Helen by the ageing Nobbs seemed both improbable and made for uncomfortable viewing.

Garcia, who is the son of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, says that viewers should put away their modern values.

'The age gap is appropriate for the period. A single man in his 50s with money would never look for a woman his age,' he says.

The film, because it hints that a woman who suffers sexual violence might turn gay, has also been accused of oversimplifying lesbian choices. Just because Nobbs chooses to dress like a man for job security does not mean that she will eventually become sexually attracted to women, goes the criticism.

'Nobbs is confused. She has not been a woman since she was 15. She suffers from something that might be called post-traumatic stress; she doesn't know what she is anymore,' says Garcia.

'She is not in touch with her sexuality enough to know that she is gay. She is just looking for companionship,' he explains.

Garcia had been brought in to helm the movie by Close, who had worked with him on the woman-centred ensemble feature film he wrote and directed, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (1999).

In between, he has either written, directed or produced television shows, including the psychotherapy drama In Treatment and Six Feet Under.

His last movie Mother And Child (2009), which he wrote and directed, was much like Albert Nobbs. Both featured female protagonists, who each carry a burden of truth that they cannot share, with men in supporting roles.

'What interests me is what is hidden in people,' he says, explaining why he is drawn to material where crucial personal details leak out slowly, changing the course of the story.

Even the title Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her is tongue-in-cheek because that idea is untrue, he says.

'We assume so much about people and everyone in the world has secrets. There is a line from an old noir TV show that I think is true: There are a thousand stories in this naked city. Behind every window is a whole world - and a whole set of problems.'