The gender-bending drama Albert Nobbs takes place in a 19th-century Dublin hotel that could be a miniature version of "Downton Abbey's" sprawling manor house. The film's early scenes capture the whirlwind of work that keeps the rich guests in luxury, and the audience quickly picks up the fraught dynamics between an imperious owner (Pauline Collins) and her staff.
Small, soft-spoken Albert Nobbs waits on the guests impeccably well and scarcely earns a second glance. Such a class-conscious setting, where smudged neckties draw more attention than a person's actual character, provides the ideal place for someone like Albert, who wants to hide in plain sight. After hours, Albert doffs jacket, shirt and corset to reveal her, uh, knobs. We never learn her birth name, but Albert's a woman who has passed as a man for decades.
Beneath a bowler hat and make-up that exaggerates her facial features, Glenn Close makes Nobbs look like Buster Keaton or Stan Laurel. Close first played the role in the 1982 Broadway play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, and has worked for 30 years to bring the performance to the big screen. She co-produced the film and co-wrote the script with John Banville, but Albert Nobbs ends up perhaps more emotionally restrained than Close intended. The actress' passion for the role doesn't quite transfer to an engrossing story, even though the film features one unforgettable character and an engaging first half.
Albert begins viewing life differently when she finds herself forced to share a bed one night with visiting housepainter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Albert accidentally reveals her secret and the rough-mannered painter, after letting Albert squirm, reveals that she, too, is secretly a woman, despite her masculine dash. While Albert's retiring male guise is a form of stealth, Hubert swaggers into the world like the cock of the walk. McTeer exudes such confidence and comfort in her own skin, we instantly want to follow Hubert's entire story.
Albert's realization that she's nearly saved up enough to buy a shop, coupled with her amazement that Hubert has a wife, inspires her to seek a spouse and her own place of business. She starts "going walking" with saucy young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska). But the younger woman has an affair with a roguish servant (Aaron Johnson), who encourages Helen to squeeze as much money and gifts from Albert as she can.
"Lesbian" isn't exactly the right word to describe Albert, who seems to have no practical idea of sexuality. She perceives Helen almost as a placeholder for an idealized marital partner, as opposed to an individual to know and cherish. Since all three members of the romantic triangle use other people as a means to an end, this facet of the film never proves as compelling as its subplot.
McTeer has the best role and consequently hijacks the story. The script builds to a weak resolution, as if the filmmakers want an ending downbeat enough to be taken seriously, but not such a bummer as to repel their audience. Directed by Rodrigo García, son of Columbian novelist Gabriel García Marquez, Albert Nobbs recounts an intriguing story with some talented actors, but by the end, you wish they'd made a movie called Hubert Page instead.