With Glenn Close's famous face staring out from the movie poster, there's no big secret to the Victorian waiter Albert Nobbs: He's a she. So, the film Albert Nobbs, inspired by a 1980s stage adaptation of the 1918 novella by the Irish writer George Moore, does not shock the audience with that revelation, but rather with the exquisitely painful repression underlying the role-playing, which Close delineates with supreme skill. The film surrounding the performance is not always as strong, but the centre holds, and magnificently so.
In a small Dublin hotel with pretentions to poshness, the stern and fastidious Albert waits on dissolute and tyrannical guests with the perfect blankness demanded of a good servant. When he is forced to share his room with both a visiting house painter and a pesky flea, Albert's secret is revealed.
But Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) has a secret of his own; he too is a woman. While the orphaned Albert has donned male garb in youth to find a job and now saves every penny in hope of setting up shop as a tobacconist, Hubert has done it to escape an abusive husband, inheriting the man's profession and marrying a nice new wife of his/her own. Albert is astounded at the possibility of living love despite the disguise and so starts to woo a flirty chambermaid (Mia Wasikowska), with predictably disastrous results.
At its best, Albert Nobbs neatly places the plight of the tragically secretive Nobbs against a contrasting backdrop created by a tragicomic cast of characters at the hotel, all of them – from the grasping hotelkeeper (Pauline Collins) and alcoholic doctor (Brendan Gleeson) to a licentious nobleman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, cleverly typecast) – hiding their own dirty secrets with much less success.
Occasionally, director Rodrigo Garcia betrays the film's subtlety or Close's powers of communication, as Nobbs unnecessarily whispers the obvious questions about Hubert's domestic arrangements to a mirror, or the picture dissolves to reveal the shimmering tobacco shop of Nobbs' fantasies.
The larger problem, however, is the plot required to push the static character forward. (Close originally played the role on stage in 1982 and has been trying to bring the story to the screen ever since, but she, novelist John Banville and script editor Gabriella Prekop have gone back to the original novella for their adaptation.) Hubert's existence is utterly necessary but completely improbable: to borrow from another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, the existence of one cross-dresser in a hotel might seem like a misfortune; the existence of two looks like carelessness!
Meanwhile, the story of the maid and her good-for-nothing boyfriend (Aaron Johnson) is all too probable, making the film feel melodramatic as it marches toward its conclusion. Tearful scenes of jilted maid and wayward lad stand out in painful contrast to a brilliant moment when Albert tries on women's clothes for the first time since girlhood and slowly, delightedly, senses some freedom.
Close will get all the points for passing – hell, she may even get an Oscar for it – but it is her sensitivity to the complete shuttering of Albert's sexuality and the resulting loneliness that really deserve the prize. I have never used the pronoun "she" to describe Albert here; the sad creature Close has created does not exist in gender.
McTeer's joyful Hubert, on the other hand, does rather exist in gender and it's a modern one. There is fun, energetic work here showing off Hubert's gruffly jocular tone with the ladies – here is a woman who understands how male gender is constructed in her era – but the final effect of the character is anachronistic, a contemporary lesbian cast back in time.
The success of Albert Nobbs depends not on us wishing our liberalism onto the 19th-century, but at observing something universal in suffering caused by sexual inequity.
- Written by Glenn Close, John Banville and Gabriella Prekop
- Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
- Starring Glenn Close, Janet McTeer and Mia Wasikowska
- Rating: 14A
- 3 stars