By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
As the title character in Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close hides in plain sight.
She plays a woman passing as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland so that she can make a decent living, something generally denied women. And she stays out of trouble by being as close to a social cipher as she can be.
Quiet, polite, cautious, deferential, meticulous, asexual, and softspoken, a walking caricature of masculinity, Albert has been dressing and passing as a man for years and has found steady work as a butler and waiter at the upscale Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin in 1898, where the guests and staff are the very embodiment of the accepted class system.
As she continues her deception and her employment, Albert saves her earnings and tips, hoping someday to buy and open a small tobacco shop nearby.
Then, timid Albert makes the acquaintance of brash, strapping Hubert Page, a housepainter (played by Janet McTeer) who is as exuberant as Albert is reserved.
Hubert, it is soon revealed, is also a woman posing and passing as a man — one with a wife, no less — to remain gainfully employed. With him/her as a newly minted mentor, the painfully shy Albert works up the courage to pursue a respectable wife.
The solid supporting ensemble includes Mia Wasikowska as the young maid whom Albert courts in an effort to gain a companionable spouse, Aaron Johnson as a rough-hewn staff member who gets romantically involved with the maid, Pauline Collins as the manager of the hotel, Brendan Gleeson as the tipsy house doctor, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a moneyed, debauched guest.
Close is fine — as her Oscar nomination as best actress indicates — although her clenched, repressed reading keeps us from getting to know the character beneath the surface.
But it’s McTeer — also nominated, as best supporting actress — who contributes an unforgettable, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her turn as Albert’s kindred spirit and polar opposite, a character so vividly rendered that we end up wishing that the film were about her.
Close, who also co-produced, played the role on the Off-Broadway stage for the first time thirty years ago, won an Obie Award for her effort, and has been trying to turn the play into a movie ever since.
Director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives, Mother and Child) gets solid work from his cast but doesn’t apply the same lofty standards to the oddly humorless screenplay — surely a missed opportunity, given the subject matter — which Close co-wrote with Gabriella Prekop and John Banville as an adaptation of “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” a short story by Irish author George Moore.
The film’s take on sexual politics is respectable, but the theme calls for a deeper delving, one that might serve to answer some of our many questions about just how Albert manages to keep this secret and get away with the deception day after day after day. To say nothing of how in the world Albert plans to win over the woman of his practical dreams, or any details of the implicit sexual arrangements that can’t help but figure in Albert’s future and Hubert’s present.
In other words, we appreciate this handsome, provocative film but just wish it didn’t ask us to read between quite so many lines.
Still, we’ll disguise 2½ stars out of 4 for the diverting gender-bending drama Albert Nobbs.
Four-word review: No cigar, but Close.