Albert Nobbs has for nearly three decades been Glenn Close’s passion project—ironic, then, since it so completely lacks passion. Close stars in the title role as a woman passing as a male waiter at an upscale hotel in 19th century Dublin. Nobbs has dressed as a man since age 14; her goal is to remain invisible among the occasionally raucous staff and guests until she can save enough to buy her own tobacco shop, where “a woman could serve at the counter.”
Albert’s supposed to be a fly on the wall, blending into the background so no one suspects her secret. But as portrayed by Close—unfathomably nominated this week for an Academy Award—the character is more accurately described by Helen (a saucy Mia Wasikowska), her fellow servant: “Sometimes I think you’re soft in the head!” More often than not, when Albert is asked a question, she stares blankly. When hotel guests pass her by, she stares blankly. And when she’s not staring blankly, she looks mildly startled.
Well, to be fair, there’s a moment when Albert looks majorly startled: Her insular world is upended when she way-too-conveniently meets Hubert Page, a painter whom the hotel owner lets share Albert’s room while completing a job. You see, Hubert is played by Janet McTeer—yes, there are two cross-dressing women in this film, and they not only happen to meet, they’re forced under the covers together. When Hubert, having had enough of Albert’s begging not to tell her boss, rips open her own shirt to reveal some unmistakable breasts, Albert just about passes out. From there, Albert wonders ceaselessly about the assured and more believably masculine Hubert—McTeer is terrific, by the way and deserving of her own Oscar nom—bursting with questions she only occasionally manages to asks.
If Albert’s repressed blankness doesn’t grate, the film’s over-reliance on coincidence certainly will. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia and co-written by Close and John Banville from a novella and an off-Broadway play, Albert Nobbs is as stilted as the hotel’s service, even when Albert tries to emulate Hubert and find love. The object of Albert’s affection is Helen, and between the actresses’ considerable age difference and Close’s lifeless performance, their scenes together feel mildly creepy and delusional. (“Should I tell her before we’re married, or save it for our wedding night?” Albert asks herself.) Frustratingly, it’s unclear whether Albert is a lesbian or merely longing for any sort of romantic connection, and, more crucially, what her sexuality has to do with her barely visible but implied pain. When Hubert tells her, “You don’t have to be anyone but who you are,” it’s not especially helpful, because if Albert knows the answer, the viewer never finds out.
When Hubert asks Albert her real name and she still says, “Albert,” it’s certainly a tender moment. And there’s a sign of life when the pair ventures out in dresses, and Albert even runs on the beach. So who is Albert Nobbs and, more crucially, what’s the point? Any possible exegesis stays buried in question marks. The film doesn’t earn our patience with sufficient context; there’s a glint of the consequences of subsuming one’s true self, but it’s not fleshed out enough to justify the story’s It Gets Better world. When a performer’s big achievement is pulling off a short haircut, a muffled voice, and men’s clothes, offer her a Globe but then be done with it.