Say this for Albert Nobbs: It’s not some run-of-the-mill “life lived in service” drama. Between Downton Abbey and the revival of Upstairs Downstairs, the market has been pretty well cornered on stories of men and women who spend their lives feeding and dressing the rich. But the title character of Albert Nobbs—a waiter in an upscale Irish hotel in the late 19th century—is actually a woman passing as a man. So there’s a twist: The Remains Of The Day by way of Just One Of The Guys.
Glenn Close stars in Albert Nobbs, and also co-wrote and co-produced the film. Early in the movie, Close’s character meets another woman in a similar situation—a housepainter played by Janet McTeer—whose success as a cross-dresser convinces Close to court flighty maid Mia Wasikowska, so that once Close socks away enough money to buy a little shop, she can live out her vision of a normal middle-class life. Her scheme provokes some striking moments in Albert Nobbs, as Close and McTeer bond over their abandoned womanhood, and as Close struggles to hide all signs of illness and weakness, lest she be outed. Even Close’s flirtation with Wasikowska creates complications, as she struggles with the disconnect between the genteel way that she’s been taught a man is supposed to behave around a lady, versus what real, working-class women actually expect from their blokes.
But that last difficulty points to the major problem with Albert Nobbs: It’s hard to believe that the people around the heroine haven’t figured her out yet. Even with prosthetics, Close isn’t all that convincing as a man. Nor is McTeer for that matter, but at least her character has a personality that helps her pass, along with a whole lifestyle (which includes a wife) that sells the deception. Close’s character, on the other hand, is a nearly complete blank who dreams of being like McTeer for reasons left far too vague. Does she love Wasikowska? Not really. Does she need Wasikowska in order to open a shop? Probably not. So why waste her time pursuing her? Albert Nobbs never satisfactorily explains that, which means that while Close’s aspirations toward normality are touching, they’re also frustratingly abstract.