What an odd little film! Every few years a gender switching film comes along and everyone gets excited about it (Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.) This time Glenn Close plays the title character Albert Nobbs, a timid little butler in a second-rate Dublin hotel around the turn of the 20th century. The film has a very Upstairs, Downstairs feeling, mostly downstairs, with one of the maids getting knocked up by a handyman, a typhoid scare shutting down the hotel, and the usual petty personality quirks keeping things interesting. Unfortunately, the character at the center of this film, Albert Nobbs, is not part of the fun.
Albert has been living as a man in service since she was 14. We find that a rape was the catalyst for the choice, but that is all we are told. Close’s performance is contained to the point of characterlessness. She plays Albert as if he could be blown away by a wisp of air. He has no friends, no social skills, no personality. He decides to marry to keep up the masculinity ruse, and to that end he sets his sights on the prettiest of the maids (Mia Wasikowska), unaware that she is involved with one of the other servants. There is nothing sexual or even slightly loving about Albert’s way of courting. It is merely a part of his delusional master plan, along with saving up to buy a building where they will live and run a tobacco shop together.
The film’s best scenes arrive with painter Hubert Page who is hired to touch up the hotel. Lacking space, they decide he can share Albert’s bed. Of course, Albert is petrified at the prospect of being discovered, but the lovely surprise is that Hubert is also a woman passing as a man. (I don’t think I am giving anything away here. I knew right off.) If there is an actress in this film who deserves accolades it is Janet McTeer. Her Hubert is warm and deep and shows Albert that is is possible to have a happy existence even in their predicament. She has a wife she loves dearly and a full life. Her story would have made a better film, with an Albert chapter for contrast.
I can’t say I recommend Albert Nobbs. Close’s performance is getting a lot of attention, but I couldn’t see any change in the character from scene one to the end. Nor did I feel like there was anything interesting going on behind that masculine mask. The supporting cast were all quite good and it looked beautiful, but the problem is the title character. I would be interested to read the short story from which it was adapted, but this movie was just kind of hard to watch.