A middle-aged butler who is secretly a woman presenting herself as a man is inspired to explore his long-buried dreams in “Albert Nobbs,” an elegant, oddball wisp of movie.
A novel premise and performances that range from interesting to dazzling keep the film intriguing and engaging. But a slide into melodrama and an inadequately defined central character prevent it from triumphing as quirky indie gold or powerful tragedy.
The director is Rodrigo Garcia, whose films (“Nine Lives,” “Mother and Child”) often involve women with sad predicaments, and he continues in that vein with this story about sexual identity, gender inequality, economic hardship and self-acknowledgment struggles in 19th-century Ireland.
The above-described Albert Nobbs is played by Glenn Close, who portrayed Nobbs off-Broadway 30 years ago. Close has also co-written the screenplay (with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop), adapting George Moore’s story.
“Such a nice little man” is how somebody describes Albert Nobbs, a thin-lipped, platter-holding hotel butler who hides his feelings and his gender beneath a blank demeanor and everyday servant attire.
At age 14, Nobbs was an orphan girl prompted by a sexual assault to begin posing as a man and working as a waiter. Those identities have, for three decades, been a means of protection and survival.
Nobbs’ journey begins when house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) discovers Nobbs’ secret and reveals that he, too, is a woman passing as a man. Unlike Nobbs, however, Hubert enjoys a satisfying personal life, which involves a down-to-earth dressmaker wife, Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher).
Fascinated, Nobbs begins considering such an existence for himself and envisions chambermaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) as the wife who would work behind the counter of the “little shop” he’d buy. Helen, however, loves Joe (Aaron Johnson), a handyman.
It’s easy to have affection for this movie, which contains entertaining upstairs-downstairs dialogue, amusingly eccentric material relating to Nobbs’ naivete, and an electrifying performance from McTeer. The scenes in which Close’s repressed Nobbs connects with McTeer’s ebullient Hubert, who serves as a brave, dynamic representation of the happiness everyone deserves, are warm, funny and touching.
Unfortunately, though, Nobbs remains too passionless a presence over the long haul. In tune with Garcia’s tone, Close provides sad, poignant hints of Nobbs’ suppressed desires, but these are just glints overall.
While Nobbs’ trauma-caused withdrawnness is believable, something more dramatically substantial is needed to enable Nobbs to move us deeply.
Also problematic is the Nobbs-Helen-Joe triangle, which delivers predictable melodrama. All totaled, the movie’s a gem-dotted misfire.
Non-McTeer supporting-cast standouts include Wasikowska, giving dimension to her shallow character; Brendan Gleeson, whose inebriated, disillusioned Dr. Holloran seems to have stumbled out of a Chekhov play; and Pauline Collins as the hotel’s snooty owner.
Starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer, Aaron Johnson
Written by Glenn Close, John Banville, Gabriella Prekop
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Running time 1 hour 53 minutes