Coverage of Albert Nobbs has been full of stories about Glenn Close’s decades-long effort to bring the story from her original stage performance to the screen. You’d think she’d be familiar enough with the character by now that she’d want to drop the audience a few more hints as to who this person is.
Nobbs is certainly an intriguing centerpiece for a story. In 19th-century Dublin, Nobbs (Close) works as a butler in a classy hotel, having spent years hiding the fact that she is a woman in order to live independently and save money for the possibility of opening a small shop someday. But when Nobbs meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) — another woman who lives as a man, but with a personal life as well — she begins to see the possibility for something more than a solitary existence.
Much of the story revolves around Nobbs’ awkward courtship of a young co-worker named Helen (Mia Wasikowska). The pull of living a domestic life like other people seemingly blinds her to the reality that living such a life would force Nobbs to confess the truth to her partner.
So, though compelling in theory, Close’s performance feels not at all like the realization of someone who has been living this life for years. Itfeels more like someone who’s trying a genderspin impersonation of Anthony Hopkins’ emotionally repressed manservant performance in The Remains of the Day, except employing goggleeyed astonishment where Hopkins simply cocked an eyebrow.
Although both Close and McTeer were nominated for Oscars (both lost), it’s McTeer who gives the truly dynamic performance here, inhabiting Hubert with a genial self-confidence. Unlike with Close, it doesn’t feel as though McTeer is acting primarily with her special-effects makeup. She allows insight into her character that Close never quite manages.
Maybe if the film had been called Hubert Page, things might have gone better, but focusing on Nobbs makes for a frustrating drama that refuses to allow viewers underneath its protagonist’s bowler hat.
ALBERT NOBBS | Rated PG-13| Directed by Rodrigo Garcia Starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer