A George Moore novella from 1927, and an off-Broadway Glenn Close vehicle many decades later, “Albert Nobbs” has at last arrived on the big screen, with all the breathtaking historical sweep of a gender-studies curriculum.
Its central figure is a woman (Close again, also a co-writer, co-producer, and Oscar nominee for her performance) who poses as a man to find work in 19th-century Dublin, and keeps on posing, problematically, for her whole adult life. Central might not be the right word, however; the work she finds is as a hotel waiter, a job so intrinsically peripheral that maybe the movie had no choice but to seem both obeisant and ignorable.
With social and sexual repression relegated, rather academically, to context, poignancy is intended by the emphatic suggestion that all this peculiar and self-protective fellow really wants is one day to run a small tobacconist’s shop. By contrast, Close’s fellow Oscar nominee Janet McTeer serves as a role model of sorts, mostly by seeming to have strolled in from a better version of the same movie. Warmly and with great vitality, she plays another man who is also a woman, and who is having a better time of it essentially by daring to do so.
Having acknowledgedly modeled her look and manner on Chaplin’s Little Tramp (apparently in full-wistful mode), Close meanwhile specializes in a conspicuous sort of blank stare, as if she’s being followed through the film by one of those 3D “hidden art” abstractions that require an intense unfocused gaze to perceive. The sense that a hoped-for “ah ha!” never will come is maybe the point but not quite enough of one.
Director Rodrigo García, the son of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, is a veteran of top-shelf TV and a few previous films. Demonstrably an actors’ director, he worked well with Close in his film “Nine Lives,” an anthology of vignettes, and continues to prove himself an artist of deep feeling, discretion, and compassion. Still, “Albert Nobbs” seems without irony to endorse its title character’s pained pronouncement that “life without decency is unbearable!” It looks to be for decency’s sake that this script, whose other authors are Gabriella Prekop and the novelist John Banville, seems so sawn off, restrained to the point of resignation.
Albert’s domestic duties extend to sponging up the lather of various secondary soap operas, most significantly the one playing out between the housemaid and the handyman (respectively Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson). Tidy and generous accommodations also are made available to other fine performers including Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Pauline Collins, and Bronagh Gallagher.
“Albert Nobbs” is a good-looking film, handsomely designed and prettily photographed. But we must remember that looks aren’t everything. We must consider that maybe one way to transcend gender-role limitations is to recognize that deep down we’re all pretenders, in a vast service industry of quiet desperation. That might be on the final.