There is really only one reason “Albert Nobbs” was made into a movie, and that reason is Glenn Close. This movie was a passion project for Close, who not only stars as the titular character but also served as executive producer, co-wrote the screenplay, helped co-write some of the music, and hand-stitched all of the costumes (OK, so I made that last one up).
“Albert Nobbs” takes place in Ireland in the 1800s and is the story of a woman who passes as a man to secure steady work as a servant in an upper-class hotel.
The movie itself is as bland as rice pudding with only slightly more plot development, but you can’t take away the fact that Close delivers the performance of her career as the stoic and reserved Mr. Nobbs.
She even makes room for another great performance by Janet McTeer, who shines as Hubert Page, a fellow male impersonator who took over her husband’s painting business after his untimely death.
Both women are so good they have been nominated for Academy Awards, Close for Best Actress, and McTeer for Best Supporting Actress.
Before you get too dismissive thinking that a period piece that messes around with gender roles is the equivalent of Oscar catnip (which it is), Close and McTeer are both worthy nominees.
This isn’t just a reverse “Bosom Buddies” for the Merchant Ivory set as Close makes her character disappear into the wallpaper, an expectation of the servant class, while also displaying heartbreaking and brief flashes of emotion.
McTeer might even be better as her Mr. Page becomes a sort of mentor for Albert on living as a woman as a man in a man’s world. She was even able to take on a wife to tend the home front while she takes her burly frame out into the world to earn a living.
Complications arise when Albert, who has scrimped and saved enough to open her own tobacco shop, decides to pursue Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a maid and fellow servant, as a potential bride.
Albert’s interest in Helen isn’t exactly romantic. She envisions the girl more like a homemaker and someone to free her from loneliness than as a lover.
This is the point where the movie really starts to break down. I suspect “Albert Nobbs” is trying to get at the fact that life for women in the past was generally pretty lousy, especially if you were of the lower class.
This is pretty well-trod territory. Not much new has been said about 19th-century gender and social inequities in Great Britain since Jane Austen spelled it all out for us.
So we’re left with the movie as a character study, which would be interesting if the main character weren’t such a blank slate.
Granted, this was the persona she has adopted to survive, but it doesn’t really make for compelling drama, nor does her ultimate fate, which comes across more as a writer’s room cheat than as an inevitable outcome.
Look, there’s no question that “Albert Nobbs” features great acting performances. In fact, they are as great as you will likely find anywhere. Unfortunately, unless you are just a huge fan of acting and don’t need things like plot, theme, subtext, or entertainment from your movies, then there is really no reason to see this film.
Sadly, great performances do not a great film make.
“Albert Nobbs” is rated R for some sexuality, brief nudity, and language.