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Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close, left, and Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs"

Close to the Vest

Albert Nobbs

There’s nothing like dressing up in the clothes of the opposite gender to get the attention of Oscar voters, and so sure were the producers of Albert Nobbs that Glenn Close would be up for Best Actress that they scheduled the film for wide release the week that the nominees were to be announced.

Still, you can’t accuse the film of opportunism. It’s a project Close has nurtured since 1981, when she first played the part on stage of a woman in Victorian Ireland who lives her life as a man. It almost became a film a decade ago under the direction of Istvan Szabo, who has some experience with stories about people pretending to be something they are not (Mephisto, Colonel Redl, Hanussen).

Instead, it arrives onscreen under the rather less firm command of Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child, a lot of HBO work). The result is a film with two excellent central performances but an uncertain idea of what to do with them.

The setting is a rooming hotel in Dublin in the late 1900s. It is a time when the rich can indulge their whims at the expense of the have-nots who serve them. The staff of the hotel includes Albert Nobbs, a capable but reticent butler. Some viewer of the future who doesn’t recognize the name may be surprised to learn that Glenn is the name of an actress, but we have no such doubts. Nor are we surprised when Hubert, a house painter with whom Albert is forced to share his bed one night, is also a woman, played by the British actress Janet McTeer (also an Oscar nominee).

Meeting Hubert is a turning point in Albert’s life. She has been living in disguise since she was 14, squirreling her pennies away, and knows only that she is unfit for the squalor and bawdiness she sees as part of normal life. But Hubert seems as content as she is repressed, even living with a woman as his “wife.” In her uncertain way, Albert sets out to do the same, hoping to gain one of the hotel’s chambermaids (Mia Wasikowska) as what we would now call a life partner.

It can’t be denied that Close makes this shut-off character someone you can’t take your eyes away from. But her efforts to keep Albert’s secrets are not leavened by the script. We don’t know what she yearns for out of life other than to be left alone. Does she simply want company? Or does she have unfulfilled lusts within her? Despite the general randiness of the setting, with chambermaids bluntly discussing their sex lives at the breakfast table and young aristocrats using the hotel for what appear to be bisexual orgies, Albert seems to be wholly ignorant of life’s simplest pleasure.

Albert Nobbs, adapted from a 1917 short story by George Moore, is not lacking in incident, some of which seem to add little to the story other than evidence that life is nasty, brutish and short. We’re compelled by the vision of Albert’s life, but frustrated by the many questions that go unanswered, leaving us asking, as does a character near the film’s end, “What makes people lead such miserable lives?”

Watch the trailer for Albert Nobbs

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