Gender Pretender

Glenn Close skillfully portrays a man, but this period piece lacks the whole package

This lumbering saga about the pitfalls of a woman in 19th century Dublin posing as a man to hold down employment as a butler opened in December to qualify for Oscar nominations. Albert Nobbs is now expanding to commercial marquees for public scrutiny. Thanks to a quirky performance by Glenn Close featuring enough prosthetics, wrinkles, painfully binding corsets and pinched diction to generate critical acclaim and give Meryl Streep a run for her money, attention must be paid. But not too much. As a period piece, Albert Nobbs is slower than Proust, and nothing of any consequence ever happens to write home about. In her bowler hat and high starched collars, Close looks like Conan O’Brien playing Oscar Wilde.

Awkwardly directed by Rodrigo García (son of acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Márquez) from a novella by George Moore that was turned into a play Close performed off-Broadway 30 years ago, it’s a dull little fugue in a minor key centered on the secret life of a woman who was gang-raped as a child and so severely traumatized that she vowed to never submit to male violence or domination again. So she assumed a male identity her entire life, parting her hair and binding her breasts to pass as a member of the serving class. Working as a shy, poker-faced butler in a modest but attractive lodging house called Morrison’s (today it would be considered a desirable, overpriced Dublin boutique hotel) at a time of radical unemployment and rampant poverty, when hundreds of young men were walking the streets looking for jobs, Albert is a proper, humorless, starchy and reliable model of discretion, observing everything and saying nothing. He performs his duties with impeccable precision, polishing and serving meticulously, carting heavy luggage up and down the stairs like a stevedore, living his life inconspicuously without a shred of emotion or unfulfilled passion, and storing away his wages and tips in a secret compartment under the floor.

The result of this subterfuge is a claustrophobic life of suffocating denial, but all goes well until the fateful day when a room shortage forces Albert to share his room with a male housepainter named Hubert Page. Albert is mortified to sleep in the same bed with another man, but even more alarmed to face the risk of discovery. His worst anxieties are realized, but a twist of fate changes his life irreversibly when Hubert turns out to be a woman, too.

Played with a rough, brittle texture by the forceful, statuesque, granite-faced Janet McTeer, Hubert not only opens a new door for Albert but displays an alternative to a life in hiding when she introduces her “wife.” Albert Nobbs turns into an awkward file on gender confusion and same-sex marriage a century before it was legal, dealing plausibility a fatal blow from which the film never entirely recovers.

With Hubert as a role model, Albert entertains the idea of opening a tobacco shop and starts courting a pretty hotel maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska, from The Kids Are All Right) whose only interest in the weird Nobbs is his money. The movie plods along aimlessly until the third act, when in a desperate attempt to introduce some action, the plot racks up a rapid succession of too many soap opera elements to keep up with—Helen’s infatuation with a handyman who makes her pregnant and leaves for America without her, the death of Hubert’s wife, and a typhoid fever epidemic—spelling upheaval for everyone.

Despite the contributions of a stellar cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Aaron Johnson, too much unrequited love results in unrequited audience interest.

A middling attempt to peek through a lace curtain for a glimpse of the other Upstairs, Downstairs staff members only leads to too many distracting social functions that fail to relieve the film’s otherwise solemn pacing. This leaves the star to pretty much carry the weight on her own slight shoulders.

Straight-backed as a Windsor chair, the quiet, studied, but seemingly effortless centerpiece performance by Close is undeniably fascinating. There are times, from certain angles, when she resembles a slim, clean-cut, preppie schoolboy. Other times, she looks like an aging effete. Obviously, she is obsessed with this project. In addition to playing Albert, she produced, co-wrote the screenplay and composed the lyrics to a dreary end-title pop song sung by Sinéad O’Connor. The point is to show the misery of an underprivileged woman ahead of her time, but so much dedication for such a small payoff makes you wonder why.

Albert Nobbs (R) ★★★☆☆