Albert Nobbs (Close), butler at a Dublin hotel, has a secret. Hes a woman. Alberts dream is to open a tobacco shop. But a chance meeting with another woman living as a man (McTeer) opens new possibilities to Albert and he begins a naive courtship of you
Albert Nobbs represents a brave determination and an obsession for Glenn Close. She played the character off-Broadway 30 years ago and has struggled to turn George Moore’s short story into a film since. Her perseverance and cross-dressing garnered Oscar nods. Director Rodrigo García (Mother And Child), with whom she has worked before, is naturally good with women. The ensemble ranges from Irish veterans Brenda Fricker and Brendan Gleeson to admirable young stars Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson. What could go wrong? Enough.
Apart from our incredulity that anyone would be deceived by the masquerade, whatever the century, the film is burdened by a central character so miserable and pathetic it is hard to care. Albert, illegitimate, abandoned and brutally abused as a girl in a squalid London slum, disguised herself as a boy for safety and employment. She has lived in constant terror of exposure and poverty, withdrawn and aloof, hoarding pennies for a secure future. It’s tragic, but it doesn’t make Albert likable. Despite having lived with the character so long Close seems at a loss to reveal anything endearing in her/him. When the good-humoured painter Hubert Page (McTeer) comes to decorate and shares the alarmed Albert’s room, the revelation of her gender and lifestyle is an entirely different story, and one that not only inspires Albert but, frankly, gives the film much-needed life.
Otherwise Pauline Collins is over the top as the hotel proprietress, while Gleeson’s drunken doctor in residence, Fricker’s cook and a couple of maids are nice enough, but much of the goings-on upstairs and down merely stretch a short story into a film. The relationship between handsome handyman Joe (Johnson) and foolish Helen (Wasikowska) is predictable and however realistic their motives, their scheme to exploit Albert makes them despicable. While Close as herself is in attractive condition, in Oscar-nominated make-up and man-drag her resemblance to Robin Williams is unnerving, her wooing of the duplicitous maid not only pitiful but frankly creepy. New York’s Alliance Of Women Film Journalists backhanded the film with their Most Egregious Love Interest Age Difference Award to Close (64 at the time) and Wasikowska (22). Sad, but true.
Not only sad, sad, sad but dreary and unpleasant, peopled with largely unsympathetic characters but for McTeer, who is great.