The role of Albert Nobbs is one that's been near to Glenn Close's heart for a while. She first played it 30 years ago off-Broadway and reprises it now in a project she's been working for some time to bring to the screen.
Her dedication is obvious in watching "Albert Nobbs," based on a short story about a woman living as a man and working as a posh hotel waiter in order to survive in 19th century Ireland. Close's Albert is all quiet repression: the low monotone of her voice, the horizontal line of her mouth, the dark, conservative suit topped frequently by a prim bowler hat. The slightest gesture or facial expression is so subtle as to be practically imperceptible.
Every moment of the performance is a marvel of precision — and yet, because she immerses herself so completely in the emotional restraint of this odd little man she's created, it's difficult to feel a connection with the character, despite the difficult life she's lived. There's no sense of the woman within — to the extent that Albert can't even remember her real name anymore — which would have provided crucial context for us to appreciate fully the sacrifice and sadness she's suffered for decades.
Rather, director Rodrigo Garcia ("Mother and Child"), working from a script Close herself co-wrote with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop, follows in melancholy tones as Albert goes about the duties of her day. She remembers the particular tastes of the hotel's regular guests and waits on new visitors with an impenetrable courtliness. She stashes her tips away each night in her modest bedroom with dreams of opening a little tobacco shop someday, and maybe even taking a bride. The saucy young maid Helen, played with much-needed liveliness by the ever-versatile Mia Wasikowska, catches her eye.
But Albert keeps these ideas to herself until the arrival of a brash painter named Hubert shakes up her world. You see, Hubert is also a woman disguising herself as a man, and Janet McTeer plays her with an irresistible, bawdy confidence. McTeer is electrifying in every scene she's in, to the point that "Albert Nobbs" drags noticeably in her absence.
Hubert also must hide her true identity in order to make a living — and, like Albert, she's the victim of a physical abuse that drove her to reinvent herself. But she's found a way to reconcile the complexities of her identity and achieve real happiness. Albert inexplicably has pinned her hopes on a young woman who could never truly love her back — as a man or a woman — as evidenced by the volatile relationship Helen is in with the handsome but illiterate boiler repair man played by Aaron Johnson (a long way from the nerdy superhero he played in "Kick-Ass").
Other supporting players bring the film to life from time to time, including Brendan Gleeson as the hotel's resident doctor and perpetual drunk; Pauline Collins as its gossipy, social-climbing owner; and Bronagh Gallagher as Hubert's delightful, understanding wife.
But "Albert Nobbs" is clearly Close's show — for better and for worse.
The Roadside Attractions release is rated R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language. Running time: 113 minutes.