Albert Nobbs knows what he's about. As a waiter at intimate, high-end Morrison's Hotel in 19th-century Dublin, Ireland, he is always perfectly groomed, eminently capable, and scrupulously unobtrusive. He knows better than to stare or even appear to notice as a wastrel nobleman makes a small drunken scene in the hallway. He not only knows which flowers the hotel's female guests are allergic to, he knows which flowers they prefer for the dinner table. In short, he is the perfect manservant, except that he's not a man.
And that's the hook for Albert Nobbs, the long-gestating pet project of actress Glenn Close, who not only stars as Albert, but also co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced. She also hired director Rodrigo García, who has a track record of astute films about women's lives (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Nine Lives, Mother and Child) and does some fine work here, not least in getting maximum mileage out of his secondary cast. Unfortunately, Albert Nobbs the film is less convincing than Albert Nobbs the woman passing as a man. (Note: The rest of this review may contain some spoilers, though as few as possible.)
Having posed as a man since his teens, Albert's gotten good at it; his fellow hotel workers, the toadying proprietress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), and the well-heeled guests accept him as a somewhat fey and sexless little old gent. Then Albert meets another woman passing as a man (Janet McTeer), who is not only more confident and outgoing in her butch drag but has married another woman. Albert is thunderstruck at the idea, the loneliness of his secret life behind his locked bedroom door suddenly exposed. Having saved his tips for a nest egg to start his own shop, he adds a wife to his dream future, and sets his sights on impish young hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska). But she's fallen hard for handsome, hard-scrabble young handyman Joe (Kick-Ass' Aaron Johnson) and is plotting a pie-in-the-sky escape to America with her volatile beau.
Boxed inside vintage formal wear and working her strong jaw, Close makes Albert pass emotionally at first, channeling the perfect not-there-ness needed to function as a good servant and dissuade scrutiny. She has more trouble with Albert's inchoate longing for someone to share his new secret life. Having just comprehended that he might not have to be alone forever, Albert literally doesn't understand how one manages to make that happen, and Close seems to have trouble navigating and conveying his cluelessness about life and love.
Not that she, or García, trust you enough to let you help much. Albert does a lot of explanatory muttering in his room, rather than letting the camera and the audience make certain connections together, and likewise the rest of Albert Nobbs often tips toward the over-obvious. One character fixes a boiler with a frustrated hammer blow when it would be more plausible if he actually happened to know how to fix it. An imagined shop sign magically materializes on a grotty storefront—literally fades in and out—while elsewhere snow magically snows and wind magically blows at just the right moments. In a film involving as much admirable gender and sexual and class realpolitik as this one, such hokey moments dispirit. And while having not one but two charismatic trans characters in one mainstream film must be some kind of cinematic landmark, watching the narrative work its way toward yet another tragic-trans end doesn't feel like a victory.
Yet if Albert Nobbs is a bit of a mess, it's often an appealing one. After a handful of remarkable appearances in early '00s indies, McTeer mostly disappeared from American screens; her very posture and gait bend gender, and her warm, charismatic, wry performance marks a welcome return. It's gotten to the point where you can rely on Brendan Gleeson to elevate anything he's in almost single-handedly, and he nearly does so here while having a laugh as the dissolute house doctor. Wasikowska, likewise, presents herself yet again as a bright spot, making her underwritten character appealing enough despite Helen's immature inconstancy. The melodramatic peaks and valleys and twists and turns these characters endure might send even the most unimpressed viewer reaching for a tissue at some point, but such good performances—including much of Close's—make you wish for a better movie to do them justice.