By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 20, 2011 at 11:15AM
"Albert Nobbs" was a longtime passion project for Glenn Close, and it's easy to see why. Adapting George Moore's 1927 short story "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs," about a Victorian-era Dublin woman who spends decades disguised as a man to find work, Close--co-producer, co-screenwriter and star--portrays the lead character with a conviction best described as chameleonesque. With her trim, masculine hair cut and robotic gaze, Close inhabits Nobbs' paranoid existence with the full weight of women's oppression bearing down on her. She is the movie.
The rest of the material simply can't keep up. Director Rodrigo García capably guides a mannered screenplay with extreme restraint, sometimes to the detriment of the immensely sad plot at its center. As with his previous film, "Mother and Child," García holds fast to the story's tragic, morose aspect from start to finish; it simply explores the main scenario without following through on it.
As the movie begins, Nobbs has spent some 30 years working as a butler for Irish aristocracy, dutifully keeping her employers' happy during the day and counting pennies after dark. She shows no outward dissatisfaction with her state, instead displaying a cold matter-of-factness that makes Close's performance off-putting from the outset. Into her world arrives a traveling painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a gruff, manly caller at the house where Nobbs works, and whose actual identity as a woman might only seem obvious to contemporary eyes. (We'll allow it.)
Forced to share a bed with the stranger, Nobbs struggles to hide her secret and fails, causing her to freak out until Page shares her own hidden gender. Their ensuing friendship forms the backbone of the narrative, with the confident, settled Page helping Nobbs construct a strategy for improving her ruse. She takes a series of cues from Page, who manages to maintain the appearance of a happily married man without living in servitude. By comparison, Nobbs' world has her petrified at every waking moment. Her dreams of asserting authority over her situation provide "Albert Nobbs" with intrigue, but it's short-lived.
Needless to say, her attempts at wooing a fellow houseworker (Mia Wasikowska) trapped in a relationship with a disgruntled young man (Aaron Johnson) prove more difficult than Nobbs' fantasies led her to believe. With these flawed shots at seduction, "Albert Nobbs" opens up to explore other problematic temperaments of the era, particularly the way ageism and disdain for the working class stymied attempts to rise up the ranks. However, no matter how fascinating these issues get, Close's screenplay (co-written by John Banville) provides little in the way of backstory for its troubled protagonist, causing the symbolic nature of the performance to overwhelm the prospects of investing too heavily in her predicament.
Still, it's a radical enough maneuver for a long-established actress like Close to take on this role that it generally dominates the experience. In another movie, McTeer would steal the show with her proto-feminist exuberance, but Close exists in a class of her own. It's no less of an accomplished performance than Hilary Swank's similar turn in "Boys Don't Cry" or newcomer Zoé Herán's delicate achievement as the lead in "Tomboy." Unfortunately, "Albert Nobbs" traps Close's sizable talent in a simplistic drama--not unlike Nobbs herself who winds up trapped in a restrictive period. While the storytelling lags, "Albert Nobbs" nevertheless succeeds as a profound chronicle of hardship. At least Close gets that much right.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Since it first screened at Telluride and Toronto earlier this year, "Albert Nobbs" has received mixed reactions due to its combination of an underwhelming plot and top-notch performance. As a result, the film seems unlikely to perform especially strong when Roadside Attractions opens it in limited release this Friday, but it may gain some awards season traction for Close herself.