"Albert Nobbs," an attendant in a well-appointed 19th-century Dublin hotel, keeps to himself. He rarely sustains eye contact, moves through his duties with solemn, ghostlike silence and does his best to fade into the Victorian wallpaper. The hotel's well-to-do patrons, on the rare occasion they give him a second thought, consider Albert "odd." They don't know the half of it. He's not merely repressed, he's cross-dressed, a woman secretly living as a man so as to earn a steady wage in the harsh Irish economy. This is a costume drama where the costume is the drama.
"Albert Nobbs" has been a passion project for Glenn Close since she won an Obie in the role back in 1982. As star, producer, co-writer and lyricist for the film's theme song, she has poured her heart and soul into the film. She is quite wonderful, not that she impersonates a man flawlessly. Despite her masculine wardrobe and cropped hair, she's plainly a woman masquerading. What Close accomplishes is something deeper than surface imitation. Jettisoning all of the mawkish sentimentality that might have sabotaged the film, director Rodrigo Garcia and his star make this withdrawn, near-asexual creature both fascinating and emotionally captivating. Albert wins our understanding in her search for a dignified and normal life, and a chance at love. We feel the depth of her self-imposed misery as an outcast from society. When she faces exposure, our guts knot with tension at her plight.
The film tells its peculiar tale in a refreshingly unaffected way, simply showing us the complexities of the world in which Albert happened to live. She didn't choose to be born when and where she was and must deal with her station as well as she can. The background bustles with characters of Dickensian richness. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is a deliciously supercilious aristocrat who uses the hotel for polyamorous trysts. As the owner, Brenda Fricker combines genteel manners with a streak of avarice. Brendan Gleeson is the humane house doctor who self-medicates with generous doses of whiskey and sin.
Mia Wasikowska soars with a semi-unsympathetic performance as a pretty chambermaid who aims to exploit Albert for money. And in a role that ought to be discovered in the context of the film, Janet McTeer offers Albert a view of how a full, loving life is possible even in the face of great prejudice and misunderstanding.
"Albert Nobbs" is a sorrowful film but not a maudlin one. It asks us to feel compassion for Albert but not to pity her. Albert takes pride in her precise service to her demanding upper-class patrons: knowing which bouquet should decorate which guest's room and how to stifle any reaction upon being summoned to a bedroom where debauched guests are lolling about. The film is wise about human nature. One class is not better than another; there's simply the pretense of being better. Throughout the film, characters pretend to be something other than they are. As we watch we learn to see past the sham and discover the real people, gifts, flaws and all. Close makes it impossible to look at Albert and not see some reflection of our own humanity. That's acting, folks.