Albert Nobbs is quietly affecting … eventually. To get there, though, you have to be patient with its serious early problem: Glenn Close is completely unconvincing as a man, even as a small-boned chap referred to as “such a kind little man” by residents of the late-19th-century Dublin hotel where Albert Nobbs works as a waiter. Albert’s voice is so female, in fact, that we wonder whether everyone around her is simply playing along, winking and thinking, “Let her pretend to be a man if she wants.”
It soon becomes apparent that they are convinced. We are left to play along with the artifice of the movie, famously a passion project for Close (nominated for an Oscar for the role). And once we accept the premise, the strength, bravery and heartbreaking sadness of Albert’s character comes through in Rodrigo Garcia’s delicately made film.
Even at the start, the film has a visual allure and a sly way of keeping us off kilter. Morrison’s Hotel, where Albert has quietly worked for years, is run by the brash, slightly coarse Mrs. Baker, played by Pauline Collins. Maybe it’s Collins’ more famous role as Sarah on Upstairs Downstairs that makes Close’s Nobbs seem so much like that miniseries’ butler, Mr. Hudson, another tidy little man with auburn hair. Close purses her lips and adopts a stiff Chaplinesque walk, which evidently makes people see Nobbs as eccentric, but not an imposter.
The hotel setting is full of dark wood and Victorian atmosphere, and there is sexual intrigue all around. A Viscount played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers checks in with a woman, in a party that includes another couple; it is no surprise to our wide-open 21st century eyes that the couples will trade off and the two men share a bed.
Albert is far more innocent, though, and horrified when she (no other pronoun makes sense) accidentally reveals her sex to Hubert, a house painter working at the hotel who has been forced to share a room. Lucky for both of them, Hubert is also a woman disguised as a man – although there is nothing blinkered about Hubert’s love for his wife, Kathleen, and nothing unconvincing about Janet McTeer’s amazing ability to transform herself into a character who to all appearances is a strapping man.
McTeer’s performance — she has been nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar – goes beyond cross-dressing though. It is Hubert, thoughtful and perceptive, who befriends Albert and makes the story more complicated. Albert is fascinated by and drawn to Hubert, curious about such an unconventional life. Hubert in turn wonders if Albert might want a Kathleen of her own, but Albert is more ambiguous than that. She naively wonders about her new friend: “When did she tell her wife she was a woman? Before the wedding or after?” With a nudge from Hubert, Albert begins courting a pretty young housemaid (Mia Wasikowska), hoping to make her wife and partner in the tobacco shop she has been saving up to buy. We have to wonder whether Albert is willfully ignoring her own desires, or is simply that innocent, and Close plays that ambiguity beautifully without ever resolving the question. Tellingly, the film is based on a story by George Moore included in a collection called Celibate Lives; in this screen version, too, Nobbs is more asexual than transgender.
And at heart, Albert Nobbs is as much about society as it is about gender. Abused as a teenaged girl, Albert long ago retreated into her safe male identity as a means of survival. In one touching scene, she and Hubert put on dresses and go for a walk, McTeer with clumsy, heavy-footed humor and Close with such tentative, unfamiliar pleasure – after all those years of binding her breasts and putting on a suit – that we’re flooded with the tragedy of Albert’s years of denial, whatever it was that she’d been denying herself. She may not be sure of what that is herself.
Garcia’s films, including his recent Mother and Child and his earlier Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, are uncompromising in their pace, unfolding with deliberate ease. Not one of his films is flawless, but they are usually rich and satisfying by the end. Despite its many troubles, so is the eloquent Albert Nobbs.