The chief selling point of Albert Nobbs is the novelty of Glenn Close applying her enjoyable theatrical intensity to the title role of a 19th-century Irishwoman who has been masquerading as a man for decades to find employment as a butler. Nobbs — who has inhabited the disguise for so long that he (I’ll stick with the male pronoun) doesn’t even know his own real name — works at a snooty hotel presided over by a wily businesswoman played by Pauline Collins. Devotees of Upstairs, Downstairs — that great 1970s British TV inspiration for Downton Abbey — will surely remember Collins as Sarah the saucy parlor maid. That may explain why Close has chosen a physical transformation that makes her look like the Upstairs, Downstairs butler, Hudson. But Close’s decision to play Nobbs as a pinched, emotionally remote servant with closely combed wavy hair, a grim mouth, no eyelashes, and an unwavering facial expression of invisibility only makes this hermetic little story about the uses and limits of masquerade that much more easily erased from memory.
Nobbs, who’s described by one upper-class hotel guest as ”such a kind little man,” has been scrupulously saving his wages and tips with the dream of buying and opening his own tobacco shop one day. Beyond that, though, he has little notion of how to break free from the life that corsets him in so many ways. The arrival of a strapping housepainter called Hubert (the magnetic Janet McTeer, a Close colleague on TV’s Damages), who has finessed the use of female-to-male cross-dressing with much happier success (and who discovers Nobbs’ subterfuge), unnerves him. The provocations of a pretty chambermaid (Jane Eyre’s wonderful Mia Wasikowska) throw the fellow into a further tailspin. And the story sinks into Dickensian melodrama. Why is Nobbs so frightened and pathetic while Hubert is so at ease with his contradictions? Unknown. What do these two drag-king solutions to sexual inequality say about the times in which they’re set? Unanswered.
Adapted from a short story by Irish author George Moore, and directed with excessive life-is-sad delicacy by Mother and Child’s Rodrigo Garcia, Albert Nobbs is a damp little trifle, a sketchbook of gestures, a parade of period costumes and domestic details. But Close’s passion for the character she plays — ?a role, she has explained in interviews, that has absorbed her since she first played Nobbs on stage 30 years ago — contains its own intrigue. I don’t know why she’s keen to play such a recessive wisp of a man, but I admire how committed she is to her bowler hat. B?