He’s “such a kind little man,” says a patron of Albert Nobbs, the efficient, attentive waiter at Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin. Albert is always polite and silent; he knows the secrets of the guests but doesn’t carouse or gossip with the rest of the staff. He’s well versed at being invisible until his betters require his assistance with a suitcase or a drink. Albert has good reason for staying aloof: He’s actually a woman, and as played by Glenn Close, a tragicomic figure in this strange, sad, mesmerizing little movie.
Albert Nobbs is set in the late 19th Century at a time when jobs are in short supply. Albert has a steady position and a small room to call her own, but keeping them depends on protecting the secret; as any Downton Abbey fan knows, women don’t wait tables, and waiters get tips, especially if they can also tote luggage. But Albert’s reasons for hiding her identity are more complex than mere economics can explain, a fact that becomes evident when her secret is discovered by a housepainter named Hubie (Janet McTeer). Strangely, though, the threat liberates Albert more than it endangers her; it frees her to elaborate on her dreams. She wants to open a small shop, but witnessing Hubie’s unconventional life unleashes a desire in her to somehow connect with another person.
There are many fine performances in the film, from McTeer, who earned an Oscar nomination as the gruff but kind Hubie; Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) as housemaid Helen, with whom Albert becomes taken; and Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Kick Ass) as the hotel handyman Joe, Helen’s beau, who exudes a whiff of menace.
Director Rodrigo Garcia lends the movie the air of a fable (snow, for example, tends to fall at just the perfect moment). The story is heartbreaking, which makes its moments of joy or humor powerful, such as when Albert has a chance to put on a dress and run breathlessly along a beach. She is a woman for blissful moments, free of restraint, but then she stumbles. Changing her reality to fit her fantasy will not be as easy as slipping off a suit and putting on a skirt.
The success of Albert Nobbs rests on Close’s shoulders; she co-wrote the script and theme song and co-produced the film (she’s also nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress). She won an Obie for playing the role on stage 30 years ago, and she brings an otherworldly quality to Albert, who is so inexperienced she’s bewildered by how people form friendships or fall in love. Albert Nobbs is not a movie about gender politics; it’s about trusting in the fundamental goodness of others and accepting one’s need for companionship, and the way in which Close slowly reveals Albert’s closed-off heart is poignant and often surprisingly funny, though never in a mocking way. She understands this confused and yet courageous woman, and it shows in every flutter of her eyelids.
Despite its often-melancholy tone, Albert Nobbs ends on a delicately upbeat note. “A life without decency is unbearable,” Albert says. This bittersweet film makes a strong case for the power of such decency.
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Brendan Gleeson.
Director: Rodrigo Garcia.
Screenwriters: Glenn Close, John Banville, Gabriella Prekop. Based on a short story by George Moore.
Producers: Glenn Close, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Alan Moloney.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 113 minutes. Some sexuality, brief nudity, language. Opens Friday Jan. 27 at area theaters.