Coverage of Albert Nobbs has been full of stories about Glenn Close’s decades-long effort to bring the story from her original stage performance to the screen. You’d think she’d be familiar enough with the character by now that she’d want to drop the audience a few more hints as to who this person is.
And Nobbs is certainly an intriguing centerpiece for a story. In 19th-century Dublin, Nobbs (Close) works as a butler in a classy hotel, having spent years hiding the fact that she is a woman in order to live independently, and save money for the possibility of opening a small shop some day. But when Nobbs meets Hubert (Janet McTeer)—another woman who lives as a man, but with a personal life as well—she begins to see the possibility for something more than a solitary existence.
Much of the story revolves around Nobbs’ awkward courtship of a young co-worker named Helen (Mia Wasikowska), one where the idea of living a domestic life like other people seemingly blinds her to the point at which she’d have to confess the truth to her partner. That’s compelling in theory, but Close’s performance feels not at all like the realization of someone who has been living this life for years. It feels more like someone who’s trying a gender-spin impersonation of Anthony Hopkins’ emotionally repressed manservant performance in The Remains of the Day, except employing goggle-eyed astonishment where Hopkins simply raised an eyebrow.
Although both have been nominated for Oscars, it’s McTeer who gives the truly dynamic performance here, inhabiting Hubert with a genial self-confidence. Unlike Close, it doesn’t feel as though McTeer’s acting primarily with her special-effects makeup, allowing insight into her character that Close never quite manages. The result is a frustrating drama that refuses to allow viewers underneath its protagonist’s bowler hat.
Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer