"Such a kind little man," says the hotel guest, of Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close), the headwaiter. Prim and proper, Albert is quiet, introverted, hard-working. He's also a woman, masquerading as this man for decades, stashing away every pence he's earned. He dreams of owning a shop--a tobacconist's, perhaps, with a parlor in the back for tea and a girl working the counter. Ah yes, a girl. A wife. That's where it gets complicated.
Glenn Close first played the role of Albert on stage all the way back in 1982, in a play based on George Moore's 1927 short story "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs." She spent a decade and a half trying to get a film version made (she's credited as a producer, as well as co-writer of the screenplay with John Banville), and it's not hard to see why--this role allows the kind of physical and vocal transformation that most actors die for. The mask Albert wears is one of timidity, and, when he fears his secret will be revealed, it is one of fear. But Albert is all he knows how to be. He/she is asked his name--his real name. "Albert," he replies, without hesitation.
Albert Nobbs is a small, muted movie; Nobbs doesn't raise his voice, and neither does the film. It lags, in spots, but it's not dull--director Rodrigo Garcia (who gave us last year's unjustly underrated Mother and Child) enjoys hanging out in the hotel's staff quarters and kitchen, soaking up atmosphere, and he employs a nice, light comic touch. Close and Banville's screenplay delights in puncturing presumptions; not just of Albert's true self, but that of visiting painter Mr. Page, or of the unexpected pairings among the staff and the guests. At this moment, in this place (1898 Dublin), there are secrets being kept in every room--not just Albert's.
To enact those secrets, Garcia assembles a first-rate supporting cast, prompting earthy, energetic performances from Janet McTeer and Brendan Gleeson, a warm turn by Brenda Fricker, and pure charm from Mia Wasikowska. The latter has one joltingly false moment (in an emotional physical scene with Close, she pulls her punches in a way that is too telling), but for the most part, she's quite good--particularly in the sequence that intercuts her courtship with Albert with her increasingly complicated relationship with handsome handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson), who turns out to be quite a bit less sympathetic than originally indicated.
The centerpiece, of course, is Close, who is eerily convincing as Albert--blank-faced, wide-eyed, pale-skinned, and withdrawn. It's an utterly believable performance, on both levels (the character she's playing, and the character her character plays); late in the film, she plays one scene with Albert in a dress, and it genuinely looks like a man in drag, rather than a woman in double-drag. Close gets the big showcase monologue we expect in this kind of role, but underplays it deftly, and refuses to push too hard.
Same goes for the picture, which is both its blessing and its curse. It's so low-key and understated that it's ultimately a bit of a whisp. And the ending is rather labored--we're just a couple of steps ahead of the movie, in moments where that kind of slack calls attention to itself. But Albert Nobbs is a fine film, handsomely mounted and sensitively acted, and proves well worth the effort exerted on its behalf by the talented Ms. Close.