Glenn Close is very still in her latest film — quiet, never cracking a smile. Playing a member of the staff of an upper crust Dublin hotel in the late 19th century, the idea was to be invisible. Think “Downton Abbey” or “The Remains of the Day.”
And since Albert Nobbs, the title character she plays, has a secret as obvious as “his” name, the need to be invisible is compounded, even more important than the husky voice she affects every time she opens her mouth.
“Albert Nobbs” is about a woman pretending to be a man. The film, based on a George Moore short story, requires a lot more reading between the lines and understanding of Irish history and women’s rights than it should. But this tale of a downtrodden woman who pretends to be a man because that’s the only way she can make a living and survive still makes for a poignant essay on class and gender and splendid showcase for Close, one of the best actresses never to win an Oscar.
Albert is all about quiet efficiency, knowing what regular guests of Morrison’s Hotel want and desire. He doesn’t banter with the staff, though he notices the fetching and saucy maid, Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Albert pockets his tips and counts them up each night, stashing the money before the floorboards of his spartan room.
Because Albert has a dream — a little shop, all his own, a little woman to help him run it.
The fact that Albert is a woman, binding her breasts in a corset, cutting her hair short and darkening her voice, keeps the waiter on edge. He’s terrified of being found out and losing his job.
When the boss (an imperious Pauline Collins) orders Albert to share his room with Hubert, the house painter hired to touch up the hotel, the waiter is mortified. Hubert asks the question we’re all dying to ask.
“So, why are you dressed as a fella?”
The answer isn’t all that satisfactory. And since Janet McTeer plays “Hubert,” we know we’re wading into even deeper waters about the glass ceiling of the day.
The film, co-written by Close and directed by Rodrigo Garcia (“Mother and Child”) frustrates us far beyond that dangling question and the suggestion that Albert’s practical-minded role playing (just to survive in a very poor country) has somehow impacted her sexual preference.
Albert’s clumsy attempts at courting the fetching Helen, sharing his dream with her and not realizing that she’s manipulating the introverted waiter, talking him out of gifts at the behest of her brute of a boyfriend (Aaron Johnson) are more pathetic than romantic. He is an asexual being whose disguise — that of a servant who buries feelings, desires and personality — only makes him less compelling.
Garcia and Close fill this world with terrific character players. Brendan Gleeson plays the hard-drinking doctor who lives in the Morrison, and Pauline Collins, Bronagh Gallagher, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maria Doyle Kennedy people this world of poverty, class and the faint hope that “going to America” will give even the poorest of the poor hope.
But for all its texture and subtexts, “Albert Nobbs” never quite achieves the pathos it aims for or the sociology lesson it wants to teach. That keeps it from transcending the stunt of having such fine performers as Close and McTeer as cross-dressers, a stunt that’s too easy to see through to allow us to ever forget it.
MPAA Rating:R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeeer, Brenda Fricker, Brendan Gleeson
Credits: Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, scripted by John Banville and Glenn Close and based on a George Moore short story. A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 1:53