One look at Albert Nobbs and you can tell he’s not your typical 19th-century butler. Painfully shy, the little man keeps such a low profile, it seems as if he’s trying to disappear into the wallpaper — with good reason. In “Albert Nobbs,” the pic’s namesake isn’t a man at all, but a lady so marginalized by male-dominated Irish society she fashioned a new identity for herself, one that comes with a pricetag of subterfuge and loneliness. It’s a career-crowning role for Glenn Close. Too bad the film is such a drag, unlikely to break out beyond the arthouse circuit.
The fact that the picture exists at all is a testament to Close’s perseverance. After earning rave reviews in the role Off Broadway in 1982, the petite powerhouse actress began looking for ways to bring George Moore’s original novella to the screen. Less than a decade ago, she picked up traction with a version that would have been overseen by Hungarian helmer Istvan Szabo (who retains a story credit), but the project fell through, delaying Close’s passion project until she could find a director.
Her eventual match, Rodrigo Garcia, has made a career of telling femme-centric stories (from “Nine Lives” to “Mother and Child”) and saw in Moore’s tale of the poor “old perhapser” a rich opportunity to examine Victorian gender roles through modern eyes. Like much of Garcia’s earlier work, however, “Albert Nobbs” is corseted into an intellectually conceptual format where the ideas prove far more engaging than the execution.
As such, the Nobbs we meet onscreen is not so much a character as a construct, so repressed that the film’s lone emotional breakthrough occurs during a scene in which the usually joyless Nobbs, who hasn’t worn ladies’ attire in decades, finally dons a full-length dress and runs free on a deserted beach. It’s an exhilarating moment in an otherwise claustrophobic piece that offers ample opportunity to admire Close’s performance but little reason to identify with her character’s fate.
The trouble starts when housepainter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, a brassy counterweight to Close’s tightly wound turn) stops by Morrison’s Hotel, where Nobbs has spent the last few years collecting tips and storing them beneath a loose floorboard in her room. The proprietress (a clucky old flirt played by Pauline Collins) insists Mr. Nobbs share his bed with Mr. Page for the night, a nerve-wracking arrangement during which the old servant manages to blow her own secret. What Nobbs doesn’t suspect — but audiences can tell at first glance — is that Page has also been passing as a man.
Nobbs is agog to find someone else perpetrating the same deception, and yet the discovery opens up all sorts of possibilities she’d never considered. For instance, Page describes how she left her abusive husband and shacked up with another lonely woman willing to help keep her cover, encouraging Nobbs to do the same. But how does someone in Nobbs’ position find a woman to share her secret? And is love even possible with someone who’s repressed her every emotion for so long?
Masculinized through seamless prosthetics, Close brings far more to the part than a boyish haircut, stiff upper lip and deepened voice; the role also calls for a heart-breaking denial of self. Peering into Close’s eyes, we may not understand Nobbs’ motives, but we sense just how much the character has sacrificed in order to reinvent herself in such a radical way. The film also captures what appear to be the first hints of a smile Nobbs may have ever experienced before the character embarks on a doomed-to-fail attempt to woo one of the hotel’s maids, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). Nobbs’ hesitant and respectful courtship is no match for the sweaty rutting Helen is already getting from the building’s grease-smeared handyman (Aaron Johnson), who sees opportunity in the old butler’s advances.
Directing his first period piece, Garcia does a fine job of evoking the era, while only partially managing to convey the circumstances that make Nobbs such a magnet for misery. “Albert Nobbs” is relatively unique among cross-dressing stories in that it takes the form of tragedy rather than full-blown farce. A wee bit of humor would have gone a long way in this dour affair, and the few glimpses we get of Victorian vice (an alcoholic butler sneaking sips from guests’ half-finished glasses, the sight of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a wealthy viscount with same-sex persuasions) are scarcely enough to salvage the slow-motion inevitability of looming misfortune.