Producer, star and freshly named Oscar nominee for her lead performance, Glenn Close has wanted to bring “Albert Nobbs” to the screen ever since she played the cross-dressing role on the New York stage three decades ago. It’s a shame she couldn’t pull the project together earlier. The film might make more emotional sense if it starred a much younger lead.
Here’s the setup. In the stratified world of a Dublin, Ireland, hotel in the 1890s, Albert is a longtime waiter and factotum in good standing. He squirrels away his salary under the floorboards of his spartan bedroom. He treats his fellow servants with quiet dignity. He is, however, actually a she — so traumatized by abuse as a orphan that, since age 14, she has masqueraded as a fella for economic survival. (Please remember that detail: since age 14.)
Into Albert’s rigidly ordered world comes a gust of easygoing manliness: a house painter named Hubert Page. Things get complicated when Albert is required to share her bed with Hubert for a night — complicated not because Hubert is a man, but because “he” is played by Janet McTeer. On meeting her first fellow drag king (married, no less, to a seamstress who’s a biological female), Albert has to take stock of her place in the world.
Unfortunately, that involves a subplot that has Albert fantasizing about opening a tobacco shop and marrying sweet young housemaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Inconveniently, Helen happens to be sleeping with studly young servant Joe (Aaron Johnson), a two-dimensional villain with boo-hiss writ across his brow.
Even less conveniently, the movie (scripted by four people, including Close) appears to have no idea what Albert’s motives are. Albert doesn’t seem to be sexually attracted to Helen, or to other women, or to men either. But questions of sexuality or gender identity come a distant second to what seems to be the character’s much greater inability, mentally, to “get” how the world works.
Here’s where I’d like for you to recall that age of 14. If we assume that Albert is the same ballpark age as Close herself (64), she’s been masquerading as a male for 50 years! Working for multiple decades in the sociological theater of a hotel seems to be an ideal way to witness, up close, the fundamentals of personal and romantic interaction. If Albert was much younger and new to her play-acting, maybe her cluelessness would make more sense. But here she comes off as a Forrest Gump or a Rain Man of the Victorian era, less holy fool than nincompoop.
Albert’s innocence raises a boatload of questions — sexual, sociopolitical and emotional — that the movie sidesteps entirely for a climax that’s one of the most anti-dramatic cop-outs I’ve seen in years. On one hand, you could praise it for avoiding cheap melodrama. On the other, you can’t really admire a movie that squanders all the dramatic tension it has generated.
Oh, well, it’s a labor of love; that’s sometimes how these things turn out. Close is very fine in a scene where she recalls a trauma from her youth, but she spends much of the movie looking like a frightened rabbit. The makeup and prosthetics (also Oscar-nominated) seem to have restricted her means of expression. Also, her Irish (is it?) accent sounds nothing like those of the genuine Irish actors around her, and her “male” voice is more like that of an old woman battling a chest cold.
The movie isn’t terrible, just a disappointment that underutilizes some fine talents. The director, Rodrigo Garcia, has built an interesting career on movies that focus on women’s experiences (“Nine Lives,” “Mother and Child”). And the gifted supporting cast includes Brendan Gleeson as the hotel doctor and Pauline Collins as its cheerfully opportunistic proprietress.
The movie’s third Oscar nominee is McTeer for supporting actress. There’s a hint of 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted” about this. You may recall that life-in-a-nuthouse movie, which actress-turned-producer Winona Ryder nurtured as a star vehicle for herself … only to see supporting actress Angelina Jolie waltz off with the Academy Award. McTeer may not pull a Jolie on Oscar night, but “Albert Nobbs” really comes to life, emotionally, only when her big, warm, manly Mr. Page lights up the screen, a breathing reproof to the title character’s chronic timidity.
“Albert Nobbs.” Starring Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska. Rated R. 113 minutes. At Tara, Lefont Sandy Springs, AMC Barrett Commons and AMC Mansell Crossing.