Being true to character isn't always the wisest course of action for an actor, especially if that character is as buttoned up and blank as Albert Nobbs. I understand why Glenn Close might savor the challenge of playing a woman who lived her life as a man in 19th century Ireland. What I can't understand is why she thought Nobbs' story, as written, was worth telling.
Based on a short story by Irish writer George Moore (which later became a play), Albert Nobbs was co-written and co-produced by Close, a project she has nurtured for 15 years. But if you're expecting an exploration of class and gender inequity, this isn't it. Nor is it an insightful portrait of transgender issues. Instead, Close's shy and fearful protagonist is impenetrable and one-note, a mostly inarticulate bystander to less interesting plot developments. For the majority of Albert Nobbs, this means following the dysfunctional relationship that develops between a pretty young chambermaid, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), and her raffish boyfriend, Joe (Aaron Johnson). Nobbs, who has been working as a waiter at a small hotel for nearly 30 years, has finally saved enough money to buy his own shop and decides Helen is who he wants to settle down with. This leads to some very awkward courting as Joe encourages his sweetheart to milk Albert for all the presents she can get. Dramatically, things go pretty much where you expect them to — tragically — but without passion, surprise, or vision.
The shallow and predictable script is obviously a problem, but so is Close's inappropriately Oscar-nominated performance. Nobbs is so closed-off, so understated, that we're never given a chance to empathize with or understand him. Yes, it was a time when women were treated with brutal disrespect, but we need more than cultural context to provide us with the reasons why Nobbs decided to live his life as a man. If the film is to achieve the personal intimacy it seems to strive for, then we need a way into Albert as an individual. Without that, there's little to hold our interest.
There's also the fact that Close makes an unconvincing man. While her commitment to Nobb's quiet desperation is undeniable, she's less credible as a man than Dustin Hoffman was as a woman in Tootsie. In the end, it's hard not to see the performance for what it is: an actorly exercise in cross-dressing.
Rodrigo Garcia's direction similarly lacks artfulness (or humor), turning Albert Nobbs into a solemn slog through period melodrama. Things are, thankfully, livened up a bit by Brendan Gleeson as the hotel's alcoholic doctor and Albert's friendship with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a hulking woman who has not only been posing as a man, but has found the kind of domestic bliss Albert longs for. McTeer's performance crackles with intelligence and vitality, offering a tender and big-hearted contrast to Nobbs' guarded stinginess.
One might be tempted to claim that Albert Nobbs examines the depths of female sexual repression, but the truth is, both Garcia's direction and Close's performance are too pinched and stagnant to offer anything more than a two hour masquerade of sadness. The movie is as unrealized and unexpressed as its protagonist.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).