En español | You’ll positively ache for the title character in Glenn Close’s heartfelt film, the story of a woman who spends her entire adult life disguised as a man. Corseted by her clothing, her choices and her society, Albert (we never learn her real name — she seems to have forgotten it) is seen by the world as a painfully shy, quietly efficient waiter, employed in the dining room of a Dublin hotel. The story finds Albert toward the end of her long service career in the early 1900s, dreaming of settling down as owner of a tobacco shop.
But although she’s contemplating a change of careers, Albert is defined, no matter how uncomfortably, by her male persona. So much so, in fact, that she fantasizes about settling down with a wife: Helen, a young and pretty hotel maid (Mia Wasikowska). What’s more, Albert finds unexpected validation for her plans in the person of another woman who has found her way in a male world disguised as a man, a housepainter/mechanic (Janet McTeer), who goes by the name of Hubert.
The trouble is, while Hubert and her wife seem totally at ease with their gender-bending state of affairs, perky young Helen is very much a man’s woman. Albert’s fantasy is doomed from the start, a state of affairs she never quite comes to terms with. In fact, from the opening frames, we have a sick sense that things are not going to go well for Albert, and that pervasive sense of doom is in the end the chief flaw in this visually arresting, beautifully acted film.
It’s easy to see why Close strove for 15 years to bring Albert Nobbs to the screen (she played the part onstage in the 1980s). Close has clearly thought deeply about Albert, and invests in him a rich thought-life that we can see burning behind her pasty, pinched face. True, Albert makes, as Helen observes, “the strangest man I’ve ever met,” but she is eminently authentic as one of those odd characters who populate every city street: mousey, frail folks who never make eye contact with anyone, who clearly have secrets that no one is really interested enough to ferret out. McTeer — like Close, Oscar nominated for her role in this film — is a bit less believable as a man, largely because her Hubert is a larger-than-life longshoreman type, the kind of person people want to get to know. I’m pretty sure the jig would be up for Hubert the first time the other guys invited her down to the pub for a Guinness.
As a slice of a sad life, Albert Nobbs offers little in the way of enlightenment. But you’ll never forget Glenn Close, standing stiffly with a tray by the tableside, eyes haunted with perpetual fear of discovery, slowly strangling in a life defined by rituals both public and secret.