As a woman disguised as a man, Glenn Close is physically astonishing, her androgynous face subtly altered (with the slight use of prosthetics) to be completely masculine. Only her voice, at times, acts as a reminder that Albert Nobbs, a gentleman butler in a fashionable Dublin hotel, is not actually a man. It may be for this transformation that Close received an Oscar nomination, but considering her flat and mannered performance, the nomination more deserved may be Best Makeup. Though Albert is the narrative and visual focus of this sad little tale of societal oppression in 19th-century Ireland, it’s the excellence of the surrounding cast that leads the film to a bittersweet denouement that is more affecting than might be expected.
At Morrison’s Hotel, Albert is a sterling servant, known for being precise and introverted. At night, after his duty to the hotel’s clientele of snobbish bourgeoisie and frolicking aristocrats is completed, Albert locks himself away in his room, carefully calculating his earnings before hiding them under a floorboard. Albert’s fear of poverty is second only to his fear of being found out for being a woman, which would be worse than scandalous—it would be financially ruinous. As a butler, Albert is accorded more respect and makes more money than the maids, cooks, washerwomen and other working-class females. The hotel’s owner, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), maintains her position of proprietor through a facade of genteel servility combined with miserliness and a none-too-dainty tolerance for disreputable goings-on, such as the patronage of a hedonist viscount (Jonathan Rhys Myers) and his companions.
Albert is as straitlaced as the strapped corsets “he” wears under his suit, and he quivers in fright when his secret is found out by Hubert (Janet McTeer), a housepainter who shares his room for a night. But Hubert has his own secret: He too, is a woman living as man—and he has a wife at home. When Albert visits the kindly Hubert at his cozy home, his blank passivity awakens into a desire for companionship and domesticity. It’s Hubert who suggests that Albert take notice of Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a spirited young maid at the hotel who has fallen into an affair with the handsome and opportunistic new boiler man, Joe (Aaron Johnson).
Based on a story by Irish novelist George Moore, the screenplay by Close (who played the character onstage in the late 1980s) and John Banville (The Last September) eschews psychology for a plainspoken narrative. Victimized at 14 and left alone without family or prospects, Albert doesn’t even know who he is. A life without decency is unbearable, he tells Hubert, even as he competes for Helen’s affection. As is traditional in these kinds of stories, melodrama ensues. But Albert is so simple-minded that audiences will feel as alienated from him as his acquaintances do; Close seemingly believed that variously framed shots of the nearly expressionless butler would add complexity. It’s mostly Brendan Gleeson as the hotel’s sodden doctor who brings life to the inevitable tragedy. Yet the film’s detractors, who find Albert’s “courtship” of Helen to be creepy because of their age difference, are missing a crucial point, hinted at by Albert’s beloved photograph. As the picture flutters to the floor, a single word penciled on the back reveals the true motive for Albert’s desperate hope that Helen will become his companion.