“Albert Nobbs” is actress Glen Close’s passion project. She’s been trying to bring this story of a woman who disguises herself as a male butler in 19th century Dublin to the big screen for years. She should have waited longer. Close is an Oscar nominee this year for her portrayal of the title character and she gives a good performance to be sure, but her character is so dull and uninteresting, it’s kind of a waste of a flashy role. Her female costar (and fellow nominee) Janet McTeer has a juicer role, but it doesn’t exactly liven up the overly dramatic and dreary film.
There have been plenty of films about gender identity in the past few years that have dealt with societal issues regarding the subject. “Transamerica” featured the story of a transsexual man on his way to becoming a woman. It had way much more to say about gender (and parent/child relationships for that matter) than “Albert Nobbs” and it features a way more enjoyable and likable character – most likely due to Felicity Huffman’s uncannily accurate and terrific performance. Close, on the other hand, doesn’t really make Albert all that sympathetic… more pathetic. And there’s a point to that of course, since she/he’s stuck in the oppressed society of the 1800s. However, one small character (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is implied to be womanizing bisexual – so Albert’s situation doesn’t quite seem as sensitive as you’d think. And in the coincidence of all coincidences, Albert comes across another woman posing as a man Hubert Page (McTeer). McTeer looks even less convicinging as a dude than Close’s androgynous portrayal.
“Albert Nobbs” is set in Dublin, Ireland in the late 19th century. Albert is a butler at a posh hotel. He harbors a secret no one must find out about. He’s a woman. Now for some reason, cross dressing in 19th century Ireland seems way less threatening than cross dressing 1990s Middle America ala Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.” I never really once feared for Albert’s life if he was found to be a woman. And I didn’t quite feel much of a bond between Albert and Hubert. Perhaps the script co-written by Close and John Banville and Gabriella Prekop is just too concerned with a side story about Mia Wasikowska’s Helen and Aaron Johnson’s Joe falling in love to have much else to say about why Albert and Hubert feel the need to hide their true identities. There are plenty of female maid characters who seem to be well-off, I don’t quite know if Albert makes that much more as a male butler.
The film is directed by Rodrigo García, who directed several episodes of the HBO drama “Six Feet Under,” but here there’s no real visual flair. It’s all elegantly shot as you’d expect a European costume drama to be shot, but there’s nothing special visually to distract you from the boring storyline. And I’m not quite sure I get the Best Makeup Oscar nomination. It just seems like Close and McTeer are NOT wearing any makeup. They just look like manish women who haven’t heard of foundation or rouge.
I can’t quite recommend Albert Nobbs unless you feel compelled to see every Oscar nominated film this year (which is why I saw it in the first place). Close and McTeer are decent, but I found myself strangely emotionally uninvolved. The film doesn’t quite know what to say about the issue of gender identity and instead remains a film in disguise of a better storyline. GRADE: C