This is an odd little movie about an odd little man. Directed by Rodrigo García (Mother and Child) and based on a story by George Moore, the film portrays life in a late-19th-century Dublin hotel from the vantages of multiple characters of different classes, but never seems to decide what it wants to say. The odd thing about Albert Nobbs, of course, is that he’s a woman.
Glenn Close has received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as a servant with a secret. To the establishment’s guests and to “his” fellow employees, Nobbs appears a paragon of dedication and discretion. He’s mastered the art of standing in the shadows, seeing everything and saying nothing, materializing only when needed.
No one suspects the strange, sad truth. That corseted beneath the black suit and starched collars is a frightened member of the female sex who was traumatized by an assault during her youth and, determined never again to be a victim of male domination, decided to masquerade as a man.
There’s a deeply tragic story of self-denial at the heart of Albert Nobbs. But, unfortunately, the film’s script — adapted by Close, Gabriella Prekop and Irish novelist John Banville — and the star’s performance fail to bring it into focus. The screenplay is too busy showing us too little of the lives of too many secondary players. Meanwhile, Close’s turn in the title role is a showy collection of stylized quirks and mannerisms that all but screams, “Look at me!” It’s the sort of acting to which the Academy traditionally is drawn; the sort that never seems like anything but acting.
Close can’t, for example, stop herself from teetering into the Chaplinesque. Wearing a bowler hat, carrying an umbrella and walking stiffly through the city streets, she gives a comic edge to a character for whom nothing about life is funny.
The story eventually splits onto two tracks, one of which serves the film far more effectively than the other. Terrified of being found out, Nobbs is taken aback when asked to share his room for a night with a worker painting the hotel. The laborer is a lanky, likable bruiser named Hubert Page. Given that British actress Janet McTeer has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this role, it can hardly be considered a spoiler to note that he, too, (what are the odds?) is a woman. The difference is that Hubert has used the ruse to embrace life rather than hide from it: He even has a doting wife waiting at home. McTeer totally steals the show.
Inspired by Page, Nobbs makes the fateful decision to realize his lifelong dream of owning a tobacco shop and running it with a wife. What follows is a convoluted soap opera of a final act into which the film’s creators toss everything but the kitchen sink. The plot developments with which we contend include the waiter striking up a bafflingly delusional courtship with a mercenary young chambermaid (Mia Wasikowska); the young woman simultaneously courting the hotel’s handyman (Aaron Johnson); an unwanted pregnancy; a threat to the hotel’s survival; an unexpected death; even a countrywide attack of typhoid fever for good measure.
The great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson has a small part as the hotel’s hard-drinking house doctor, and he speaks one of the movie’s final lines: “What makes people live such miserable lives?” This is, after all, the film’s central question. Nearly two hours after meeting Albert Nobbs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, in his case, the people who brought this story to the screen didn’t just neglect to tell us; they probably never knew.