Glenn Close had a triumph on stage as “Albert Nobbs,” but by thrusting the story about women who pass themselves off as men in nineteenth-century England into close-up, this film version accentuates its implausibility to fatal effect.
Close is introduced as the title figure, a hyper-reserved butler in a modest London hotel. Nobbs is almost preternaturally quiet and undemonstrative—reminiscent in many ways of Chance the Gardener in “Being There”—and keeps entirely to himself, shielding his true identity with loneliness while saving every penny to serve the dream of purchasing a shop and going into business.
Nobbs fools everyone, staff and guests, until Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter hired to do some interior work in the hotel, has to spend the night in Nobbs’s room and discovers her secret. Of course, Page is a woman too, a refugee from an abusive husband, who now shares a flat with another woman as a supposedly married couple. Hubert’s arrangement proves a revelation to Nobbs, who undertakes to create a similar one for herself by courting Helen (Mia Wasikowska), one of the hotel maids, with whom he believes he might settle above his new shop. But it’s a hopeless dream, since Helen is already deeply involved with the hotel’s thuggish handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). She’s more than happy to follow her lover’s advice and take the poor fellow for whatever cash and gifts she can extract from him before a stinging rejection of a serious proposal.
Obviously “Albert Nobbs” is a period parable about how society marginalizes women, forcing them into false roles to survive. It also implicitly comments on what Wilde, a man of the same time and place, called the love that dare not speak its name. Both of those are certainly issues worth exploring, but while on the stage the artifice with which they’re approached here is part of the medium, in the more realistic one of cinema the theatricality is a drawback. And the problem is accentuated by the solemnity of the approach, in terms of both the writing and Rodrigo Garcia’s direction.
Of course, the deliberation does give Close the opportunity to build the character through an accumulation of details, some broad but others minute, just as Hal Ashby gave Peter Sellers time to develop Chance. But he was a blank slate; Albert is a repressed, conflicted figure, whose interior life neither the script nor the actress is able to disclose to us satisfactorily. Apart from a looming air of tragedy that is released to the full in the end, the film’s emotional tone is curiously drab.
In contrast to Close, McTeer brings extroversion aplenty to Page in a showy turn that will garner praise even if she’s really no more convincing as a male than Close is. Nor is the rest of the cast especially well used. Brendan Gleeson brings his customary amiably gruff air to the part of a resident doctor, and both Pauline Collins, as the garrulous hotel proprietor, and Brenda Fricker, as another member of the staff, have their moments. But Wasikowska is strangely anonymous as the manipulative Helen, and Johnson a one-note piece of beefcake as the malevolent Joe. Even Johnathan Rhys Meyers, who appears briefly as a pleasure-seeking nobleman, brings little to the party.
Though produced on what was likely a very limited budget, “Albert Nobbs” is visually strong, with Michael McDonough’s elegant cinematography serving to show off Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s production design, Susie Cullen’s art direction and Pierre Yves-Gayraud’s costumes. But it doesn’t complement its well-appointed surface with content that goes very deep. It’s a picture more notable for its good intentions than actual accomplishment.