As the title character in Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close is giving The Iron Lady's Meryl Streep a run for her money in the transformation department. While Streep sports prosthetic teeth and an osteoporosis hump, Close is scrubbed of makeup and dressed in men's clothes, her hair shorn and face blank. If the frumpiness of these leading ladies is any indication, it must be awards season.
As the closed-up, passive Albert — a woman passing for a man — Close is splendid and virtually unrecognizable from the fierce, self-actualized, independent characters she has often played in the past. She melts into the guise of this entrapped woman, an introverted, faithful, and dignified waiter at a small Dublin hotel. In 19th-century Ireland, there is a stark divide between the apparently carefree rich who frequent the hotel and the servants like Albert who cater to them and live in fear of some slip from their positions of relative security.
Within this bustling world of shared staff meals in the kitchen and the perpetual grind of work, Albert is an anomaly. Always apart from his fellow workers, he spends his non-working time locked up in his room, recording each tip in a notebook and squirreling away a growing fortune beneath the floorboards. The secret of his true gender keeps him isolated and fearful of discovery. His dream is to open a shop and scrape out of the lower classes. As the film makes clear, life has shown Albert its dark side: the brutality of poverty and the danger of being a poor, unattached woman.
Not only is Albert trapped in having to play a man, but he is a victim of a brutal British class system in which deceit, injustice, and cruelty are the order of the day. The working-class maids, waiters, and cooks in Albert Nobbs have little social mobility and their lives depend upon their employers. One false move, or offended guest, and they could easily be out on their ear. That point is made when butler Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) slips and falls on the icy steps of a posh hotel across town. His clumsiness so offends the wealthy guest whose bags he is toting, the patron demands Joe be fired on the spot. Joe is forced to go begging for work and winds up on the doorstep of Albert's hotel. There, pretty maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) falls for him and, at his prodding, tries to seduce Albert into giving her money to aid in the couple's escape to America.
Some of the film's most painful scenes are ones between Helen and Albert, where he tries to convince her to join him in his dreamed-of tobacco shop. Albert is starved for companionship, and Helen represents some escape from that solitude. But you know the situation will not end well. Unfortunately for the overall tone of Albert Nobbs, this abortive "romance" between Helen and Albert is also more than a little strained and implausible. While it is intended to show Albert's loneliness, it sets up a phony contrast — one that can often feel too ham-fistedly P.C. — between the "normal" (a.k.a. violent and exploitative) relationship between Helen and Joe and the far more gentle and protective love Albert offers Helen.
Albert's courtship of Helen is inspired by the example set by the tall, strapping painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) who has come to spruce up the hotel. Hubert, also passing for a man, has managed to survive Dublin's brutal class system with the help of a devoted wife. The couple offers Albert a vision of the contented, happy home life he so clearly aches for.
Colombian director Roberto Garcia, who also pulled in tight to reveal the complicated fabric of human behavior in the wonderful ensemble piece Mother and Child, delivers a solid, if not quite as artful or nuanced, exploration of people in Albert Nobbs. As in that film, Garcia brings a bone-deep sense of misery to the plight of his characters, which sinks into you like a bitter cold day.
Close's performance is probably the best endorsement for a film that can often feel a bit thin in other regards. Though Albert Nobbs tends to play in just one dour key of funk throughout, there are moments that can feel Oscar-scripted for emotional catharsis, like one where Albert finally dons women's clothes and runs joyfully on the beach. Beyond the parameters of this strange story about gender "passing," there is a feeling that in playing a woman trapped inside the masquerade of being a man, Close is expressing something more universal. At its core, Albert Nobbs is a portrait of a man paralyzed by solitude in this often powerful, aching portrait of the larger human condition of loneliness.