Damsels in Distress (12A) ** Albert Nobbs (15) **

No real winners in these wards of the sexes

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The Independent Culture

When a filmmaker has been off the scene for more than a decade you tend to approach the comeback with trepidation. Has he still got it? Or, in the case of Whit Stillman, did he have it in the first place?

I loved his first movie Metropolitan (1990), a sly portrait of outsiderdom amid gilded Manhattan youth that played like F.Scott Fitzgerald rewritten by Eric Rohmer. The films that followed, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) stayed with that upscale urban set, only now the high spirits had clouded over. Part of the appeal of Metropolitan was that Stillman's characters were essentially kids playing at being adults. Once they actually became adults the charm thinned drastically.

So the news that his first movie in 14 years would centre upon a trio of young college women was cheering indeed. True, we've had campus comedies up to here in recent times, but a Whit Stillman campus comedy holds forth the promise of something different. Take Violet (Greta Gerwig), for instance, a student at Seven Oaks College in present-day New England who dresses like a 1950s housewife and talks like a crinolined society girl out of Wilde. "I adore optimism, even when it's completely absurd – perhaps especially then". Violet, along with her fragrant friends Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), have made it their mission to civilise odoriferous frat-boys and rescue fellow students from failure and depression. This involves running the Suicide Prevention Center, where they distribute donuts and recommend the curative properties of tap-dancing.

The trio have also decided to recruit campus newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who initially seems to spike the carefree mood with conflict when she suggests to Violet her meddling ways are "arrogant". Yet Violet takes the criticism in the same spirit of amused tolerance she takes everything else, reinforcing the film's oddly frictionless atmosphere. For a while you wonder if it's preparing a war of the sexes, when Violet's boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) betrays her for another, but then it becomes apparent that the college males are a feckless fraternity. Take perfidious Frenchman Xavier (Hugo Becker), who fakes a religious zeal as a way of justifying sodomy (it's a long and uninteresting story); or take Thor (Billy Magnussen), a lummox so benighted he greets the sight of a rainbow as if it were a UFO. No wonder Lily asks Violet what the plural of "doofus" is. This just isn't a fair fight.

The film's problem is that, while the women are plainly a superior species, they're not much easier to like. Violet and her crew all speak in the same prissy, hyperverbal manner, aiming for an epigrammatic drollery that more often than not falls flat. It's as though Stillman is determined to have his cast homogenise every line-reading – "once again, please, only this time even more inconsequential". Rose, with her affected English voice, and Heather, with her cutesy gormless one, aren't to be trusted as characters, even comic ones. Greta Gerwig, a wonderful actress, is seriously misused here, enunciating her lines overdeliberately and hung out to dry in the dead spaces between. Only once, right at the end, does the film spring into life as she and Adam Brody dance a silly-swoony duet to the Gershwin song "Things Are Looking Up" (made famous by Fred Astaire) then follows it with Violet's invented dance-step "the Sambola", complete with directions. And it's marvellous! That's when I realised how Damsels in Distress could have worked – as a musical. If Stillman had paved these disjointed scenes with song and dance he could have written that arch, twitty dialogue to his art's content. Alas, much as I wished it otherwise, his comeback is mostly unlyrical, and worse, unfunny.

Albert Nobbs is a story of Irish hypocrisy and private thwartedness at a late 19th century Dublin hotel, the sort of thing that Brian Moore or William Trevor might have written in long ago. It wouldn't be an automatic sell to the cinema were it not for the eponymous Albert, a male servant who unbeknownst to all is a woman, played in an Oscar-nominated turn by Glenn Close. An illegitimate child, without a name, she eventually escaped the narrow lot of her sex and upbringing by the expedient of remaking herself as a man. Thirty years on s/he occupies a modest single room upstairs at Morrison's Hotel, accumulating a secret nest-egg with which she hopes one day to open a tobacco shop. Where there's smoke...

Albert's sad, stunted life begins to change when her identity is rumbled by a house-painter named Hubert Page – and no wonder, because she's a woman in disguise too (and played, with watchful wit, by Janet McTeer). Having deserted an abusive husband and taken his clothes to boot, Hubert is now happily domesticated with a wife. This gives Albert the idea that he also might find a soulmate, and he battens on pert hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), despite her obvious intention to run off with a loutish boilerman (Aaron Johnson).

The extent of Albert's masochistic delusion is meant to exact pathos, but it's unfortunately just creepy – and ridiculous. Close, having played the role in a 1980s stage adaptation, might have pulled it off in her thirties when Albert was possibly still a catch. Now in her mid-sixties, she looks too lived-in to be a young girl's suitor, even if she can cut it as a male impersonator. Which I rather doubt in any case: Close's stiff body language, carroty hair and weird half-cockney accent didn't recall any man I've ever seen, or heard. (It's like a reverse Mrs Doubtfire, only not played for laughs). Perhaps her true achievement of pathos is that when she puts on a dress and bonnet for a walk on the beach Close doesn't really look like a woman either. Now that's a damsel in distress.

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