‘Albert Nobbs’: Role reversal

December 20, 2011

The best movies find ways to be something larger than the one-line description that winds up in TV Guide or other brevity-obsessed outlets.

And so it is with Rodrigo Garcia’s “Albert Nobbs,” a comedy of manners minus the comedy; while there is wit within a group of writers’ adaptation of George Moore’s short story, this is a movie about the price of personal freedom and how much one is willing to put up with for just the smallest taste.

The gimmick, of course, is that Glenn Close is playing a woman pretending to be a man – and succeeding at it. For decades, Albert Nobbs (Close) has been a butler and waiter at a discreet Dublin hotel, stopping place for minor royals with roaming tastes and a self-interest in discretion. The hotel is both proper and insular, thanks to tight-lipped types like Albert.

In fact, in late 19th-century Ireland, Albert is actually a woman, who has disguised herself as a man to earn better wages and tips than she would as a waitress or maid. Albert has his/her own room on the premises, as do most of the other help and hides money away in a container under the floorboards, with an eye toward starting his/her own business someday.

But Albert’s world is knocked askew one night when a painter named Hubert, who was hired to do a single room, is kept on to handle another – and given the other half of Albert’s bed to sleep in. Eventually each spills his/her secret to the other and Albert’s world is up-ended, at least internally.

Hubert has found a way to live as a man and still enjoy the company of others – of a woman, in fact, as her husband. He/she gives Albert the hope that, perhaps, there will be a life after the hotel, once enough money is accrued. So Albert sets his/her sights on the hotel’s flirty young chambermaid (Mia Wasikowska) and awkwardly begins wooing her, with sweets and the revelation of Albert’s dream of opening a shop of his/her own. But the maid is playing with Albert’s affection, while dallying with the hotel’s new handyman (Aaron Johnson).

Close gives a performance that is veined with tension and anxiety, as well as the occasional glimmer of hope – that living this circumscribed existence will have all been worth it when Albert marries the maid, starts his own shop and … well, imagine Albert’s fantasy.

That’s what Close’s wonderfully modulated performance does: lets you see the panic and elation and other emotions that Albert Nobbs can’t quite express out loud. He’s a character not unlike Anthony Hopkins’ Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”: too caught up in the job to notice how it impinges on and cramps her life.

“Albert Nobbs” lacks the kind of flashy quality that is bringing attention to Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn” and even Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.” But Close’s performance is exquisite, carefully etched with bits of pain and ecstasy.

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