Albert Nobbs is a study in tasteful restraint. But that doesn’t mean it’s slow, passionless or dry. Rodrigo Garcia’s film trades in subdued emotions and subtle currents of longing that are deeply felt, driven home by the great performances of leads Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and a screenplay that’s attuned to the sense of wonder — and the longing for something better — that accompanies the pursuit of an unlikely dream.
Close stars as the title character, a devoted and rigid butler at a small 19th century Dublin hotel. Albert has a secret, of course. He’s a woman, living as a man to work and save enough money to open a small tobacco shop. When the obsessive, justifiably paranoid Albert meets Hubert Page (McTeer), a handyman facing the same predicament, he’s inspired to begin opening up, moving forward in his store-owning aspirations and fomenting a romance with the deceptive maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska).
The real story of Albert Nobbs begins and ends with the terrific acting. The lead part offers Close — who co-wrote the film and co-produced it, after having played Albert on stage — her greatest acting challenge. She meets it with a fullness of being, the sort of comprehensive disappearing act that characterizes the best performances. With a modicum of dialogue and a wealth of complicated, internalized reactions, Close succeeds at imbuing Albert with the strength of spirit that belies the indignities he faces.
McTeer’s fierce performance as Hubert displays a sort of progressive pride that drives home the character’s primary function — to show Albert that there is another way to live. He’s the catalyst that opens the protagonist’s heart and mind to the possibility that his time has finally arrived, to the thought that he might well have found his escape from a life of secrets and servitude. The actress offers an ideal counterbalance to Close’s overarching restraint, a literate, decidedly modern take on a 19th century figure that frames her as a woman carving out her destiny as she sees fit, however unconventionally.
There’s never any sense that Albert might actually achieve his dream of running the tobacco shop with Helen. The film stresses its impossibility by relentlessly focusing on period social mores, establishing and playing out the class and gender divisions that have forced Albert to disguise his identity. At the same time, a subplot involving Helen and her true love Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) stresses the dark ulterior motives underlying her involvement with Albert.
But Albert Nobbs would be a less authentic character study had Garcia indulged in flights of fancy. Whether things end happily for Albert is not, after all, the point. This is a movie that dwells squarely within the interior world of its protagonist, indulging in the hopeless optimism of life’s possibilities, not the unrelenting despair of its realities. It’s a snapshot of Nobbs at a time of great joy after years of hardship, when it finally seems as if things are going his way.
The Upside: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer.
The Downside: Mia Wasikowska’s character is underdeveloped and the movie doesn’t leave the lasting impact of a great piece of cinema.
On the Side: This is a passion project for Close. She won an Obie for playing Albert on stage in 1982 and spent years trying to turn into a film.