“We are both disguised as ourselves,” quips the boisterous and charismatic Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson) to Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) at a costume party, to which they have both come without fancy dress. Of course, this is for entirely different reasons: the good doctor seems to have no patience for this sort of high class frivolity, while Nobbs is working. The hotel may be throwing a costume party, but its employees must remain in their drab uniforms for the duration. This little hint of a deeper problem of class and with Holloran’s unsuspectingly astute observation about secrecy make up the thematic ambiguities that give “Albert Nobbs” an abundance of both heart and wit.
Nobbs is a waiter/butler at a posh Dublin hotel, where he lives in a small room upstairs. He leads a somewhat innocuous and hardworking life, with one great secret: Albert is actually a woman, posing as a man in order to maintain a good job, save up and some day open a little shop of her own. Yet the film is, perhaps surprisingly, not quite a close-up of Close’s beautifully acted, shy and assiduous member of the Irish working class. “Albert Nobbs” thrives on a whole cast of eccentric hotel characters, a sort of sexually repressed version of “Separate Tables.” There’s the bossy proprietress, the drunk butler, the older chatty maids and the younger, more daring maid, the flamboyant upper class guests and of course the sexually potent teen rascal whose presence only complicates everything. It’s a complete upstairs-downstairs set up, built around a marvelous ensemble rapport.
And the entire group works together beautifully. Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson bring youthful energy to the house, bursting with sexuality and the viciously passionate nature of young love. Their relationship is just one piece of a marvelous counterpoint of love and lust hidden behind closed doors. The doctor and one of the older maids sneak around the house while the young nobleman trounces around with a constant parade of women and men. Even the prissy Mrs. Baker seems a bit more ebullient around the young man of the house as he goes about his work.
This whirlwind of secret love is the perfect context in which to place the enigmatic Albert Nobbs. Close plays the odd one out, the lone member of the house who has removed herself entirely from the realm of sex and relationships. She stands in relief, her surroundings at the hotel helping us to see the little distinguishing features that make up this marvelously complex character. The last and most essential piece of this puzzle is brought in by the impeccably stolid and inspirational Mr. Pace, Janet McTeer’s accompanying performance a crucial inspiration to Albert’s growth and Close’s triumph. After having inhabited this role for decades, Close has mastered the minutia of expression and depth of reaction necessary to really bring Albert Nobbs to life.
In some ways, however, this film is a little bogged down. The performances are almost entirely stellar, and Rodrgio García does a marvelous job keeping everyone together and on point. Yet around the edges, in particular the last act, there’s a little too much going on that distracts from the real core of “Albert Nobbs.” Not every loose end needs to be tied up and not every last aspect of this period drama needs to be fully explored. It runs a bit long, and is not quite as tightly directed as it could be. This is a film of performances but not necessarily of great intent, as its more insightful and pointed elements are left surprisingly unattended.