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No, this is not a story about an Irish lesbian. Sure, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is actually a woman posing as a man in 19th Century Ireland, and the slightly misleading trailer might make you think that Albert is sexually interested in women. However, "Albert Nobbs" is a story that has very little to do with sexuality. Instead, it's about companionship, loneliness and survival during tough, conservative times where social and gender divisions prevented females from the working class from being taken at all seriously. The decision to dress like a bloke was really the only method that Nobbs could think of, at the young age of 14, and she has kept up with this act for decades.
Working as a butler in a hotel, earning an honest living, saving up, and dreaming of a bright future, Nobbs is solely focused on being good at her job. She has very little interest in socialising or speaking a word to her colleagues, and everyone at the hotel agrees that she is not only shy, but is also a bit of an eccentric. The only real method she communicates with anyone is in her own room, talking to herself as she counts the money she has managed to save up over the years. It's sad and depressing to see a person this isolated, but this is all she has ever known, and she is fine with it.
Her secret however, doesn't stay buried forever. A painter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), forced to share Albert's bed due to a shortage of rooms, discovers Nobbs' secret. It turns out Page is going through something similar of "her" own, and Nobbs is further intrigued when Page is revealed to be happily married, to a woman. Is it still possible to have a normal life, a person to fully love and embrace you even if you happen to be a woman who dresses up as a man? Seeing Page, her wife, and their home give Nobbs hope, and she turns her eyes to the young, beautiful Helen (Mia Wasikowska), working as a maid in the hotel. Attempts to woo and befriend her are something new and difficult for Nobbs to handle, as she lacks the obvious charm and knowledge to get close to another human being.
Close, who also co-wrote the script, worked on this project for around 30 years, having previously played this part on stage off-Broadway in 1982. She may not look enough like a man on screen for everyone around to be tricked by her disguise, but that is really not the point here. She has had to pretend for most of her life, and this restriction and frustration have naturally had an effect on Nobbs, most notably her confidence. She is always on the look-out, paranoid and absolutely petrified at the thought that someone might find out. And Close's rigid and restrained performance perfectly embodies the nervous Nobbs, as Close gives one of the most stirring, touching performances of the year. She says very little, and is always carefully mannered. As she opens up more in order to find herself a wife, her deeply awkward ways also add some unexpected humour into the film.
Complications arise though, as there is a young man also interested in Helen. Joe (Aaron Johnson), a boy hired off the street for knowing how to operate the hotel boiler, actually welcomes the fact that Nobbs shows keen interest in his girlfriend. He wants Helen to hang out with Nobbs, and to squeeze as many material gifts out of the better-off butler. Helen initially goes for that idea, but as time goes by she realises that Nobbs is a strange yet nice man with manners, qualities her current passionate younger lover seems to lack. Wasikowska is charming as the slightly clueless young girl who may not be easy to like at first, but does eventually win you over with her naïve warmth. Johnson on the other hand, plays his nasty piece of work with a hint of ambition, anger and jealousy, a mixture that results in intense confrontations and outbursts, something that Johnson handles well without going too over the top, staying well within the film's calm tone.
Despite being a film revolving around one woman's extraordinary life, director Rodrigo Garcia takes his time to use his supporting characters rather than relying on one outstanding performance of a seasoned performer. McTeer, who deserves a slot in the Best Supporting Actress category as one of the closest friends to Nobbs, provides a reliable shoulder of support for our heroine who often struggles to find her place in the world. Brendan Gleeson, whenever he does sporadically show up, is a funny, boozy doctor, and Pauline Collins, the money-and-opportunity-grabbing lonely owner of the hotel, Mrs. Baker, manages to convey the uptight, strict boss with both her wicked ways as well as with the occasional wit.
The problem with "Albert Nobbs" is that even in the most crucial, emotional moments, everything feels too slight and oddly doesn't explore the character of Albert further. Close does her best with what she is given, and her performance is of such a high standard that whenever she is on screen, the audience is gripped by even the smallest changes in her expression, but when we truly think about it, there hasn't been a lot told about our central character. A brief background story is not sufficient enough to truly enrich an intriguing, yet highly unusual narrative such as this one, and makes it harder to relate. And as for the rushed ending, that does have the ability to jerk tears out of involved members of the audience, comes out of nowhere, and wraps things up too quickly. Because Albert is a "man" of very little action, we expected that to somehow change, not in a drastic, inconceivable way, but to change nonetheless. But before anything can happen, the hastily written ending comes, we are left wanting so much more. Most of the 113-minute running time is spent on relatively tame events, that the film never builds a strong momentum to warrant that tragic end. It's sloppy, and leaves the film's story hanging. "Albert Nobbs" is a clear showcase for the versatile actress that Close is and has been for all these years, and yes, she does no doubt give an award-worthy performance that will be one of the highlights of her long, distinguished career, but the muted atmosphere cannot quite keep up with the actress' intense performance, no matter how much the director focuses on his brilliant ensemble.