Rodrigo García’s Albert Nobbs—a long-cherished project of star, co-writer, co-producer Glenn Close—is a strange, sadly sweet little film, and one that I very much fear is apt to get lost in the shuffle. It immediately suffers from what is both its central conceit and strength—Ms. Close’s title character, a woman masquerading as a man in 19th century Dublin. That’s not a premise that’s going to be to everyone’s liking—and it doesn’t help that Close makes for a singularly peculiar-looking man (or woman passing as man). In fact, at first this is distracting, though it becomes less so as the film progresses. (It becomes a complete non-issue on a second viewing.)
Close gives a remarkable performance as the woman-turned-man—something done in large part to protect herself from the world—who finds a kind of place in Dublin as a waiter at Morrison’s Hotel. Indeed, the film is ultimately less about the deception itself than it is about Albert’s gradual awakening to the idea that the deceit might have deeper possibilities. This is something that only slowly dawns on Albert—and may never be fully comprehended—during the course of the film, mostly through his relationship with Hubert Page (Brit TV actress Janet McTeer). Hubert is another woman passing as a man (far more convincingly), and Albert is fascinated—and a little perplexed—by the fact that Hubert has a wife (Bronagh Gallagher, Tamara Drewe). “Did he tell her he was a woman before the wedding, or after?” muses the unworldly Albert.
Albert persists in thinking wrongly that Hubert’s marriage is a matter of convenience—even after he sees the pair together—but is drawn to the idea of a home, a fireside and someone to share it with. (Though it’s unclear as to the extent of what such a marriage would be as it exists in Albert’s mind.) Albert’s own simple dream of saving enough money to open a tobacconist shop (an odd choice, since Albert is a nonsmoker) soon takes on the addition of a wife to share it with. One candidate soon arises in hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who has an agenda of her own. Or, more to the point, her boyfriend, Joe (Aaron Johnson, Nowhere Boy), has an agenda for her to pursue.
The easy, affecting drama—and occasional comedy—of the film exerts an appeal that isn’t easy to describe, though much of it has to do with the pleasantly sketched-in supporting roles. It helps that those roles are filled by people like Brendan Gleeson (who is given the film’s most heart-breaking line), Pauline Collins and Brenda Fricker. But there’s a subtle air of almost fairy-tale charm to parts of the film—and key scenes that take place among the fluttering, drying laundry recall Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). That the film manages to be touching without being maudlin, and to be smart without being mean-spirited, is perhaps what really seals the deal. Whatever the case, there’s a bit of magic at work here. Rated R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language.