Albert Nobbs, which was graced with Oscar nominations this week for Best Actress (Glenn Close) and Best Supporting Actress (Janet McTeer), is a passion project for Close, who first played the title role onstage decades ago and serves here as not only star but co-writer and co-producer.
Albert is a woman passing as a tidy, tiny man in 1890s Ireland, where he (I'll use the male pronoun) works as a butler at a Dublin hotel. We later learn that Albert, now presumably in his 60s, began this masquerade as a teenager as a means of survival and has been doing it so long there's little apparent difference between his public and private self. As a doctor (Brendan Gleeson) says, unknowingly, to Albert at a party where both are in their work clothes, "We are both disguised as ourselves."
But Albert's routine is disrupted when he's forced to share a room at the hotel with a new employee, housepainter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who discovers Albert's secret before revealing his own.
Though Hubert, too, is a woman passing as a man in public, he is more at ease, living not as a celibate but in a loving marriage with a femme seamstress. Albert, who dreams of opening his own tobacco shop, is inspired by Hubert's happy home life and pursues a young maid at the hotel (Mia Wasikowska) to be his bride and shop-mate, seemingly oblivious to why this arrangement might not work.
There is a Dickensian aspect here, as all three women at the story's core are looking for ways to survive without means or men to support them. And scenes between Close and McTeer are the strongest — though an outing to the beach boldly and precariously risks self-parody — allowing the film to explore its ostensible theme about the uses and limits of masquerade and the complicated continuum of gender identity.
But the closing echoes of Brokeback Mountain reach for an emotional impact the film doesn't quite provide. McTeer is less believable as a man than Close, but she infuses her character with a personality and depth that lets her, um, pass. By contrast, Albert remains at a remove. Close's prosthetic makeup is subtle but still a problem, with her impassive, elfin visage becoming more distraction than object of fascination as the film wears on. And the film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Mother & Child) doesn't bring us fully enough into Albert's inner world, and so he — and the film — remain too much a curiosity.
Studio on the Square
Opening Friday, January 27th