Warning: Contains mild spoilers.
I must confess that I went into Albert Nobbs with the lowest of expectations. It is a film that is served terribly by its publicity campaign—the woeful trailer, with its sappy theme song and overall tone of drawing-room comedy—had me referring to it disdainfully as "Dragtown Abbey" or "Albert Knobless." I almost certainly would have avoided the film altogether if it hadn't represented three of the remaining items in my annual Oscar Nomination Scavenger Hunt (Best Actress nominee Glenn Close, Best Supporting Actress nominee Janet McTeer, and Best Achievement in Makeup.)
However (though I still can't quite recommend it) Albert Nobbs turns out to be a far more interesting—and darker—movie than it appeared to be. Based on a novella by the early-20th century Irish writer George Moore, the titual character (Close) is a woman passing as a man in turn-of-the-century Dublin. (And no—just to get the inevitable criticism out of the way—Close gives a fine performance, but does not make a very convincing man. Let us just assume that it would have occurred to very few people in turn-of-the-century Dublin to even be suspicious of this elfin, effeminate man, and leave it at that.)
Albert has been working as a man for more than 20 years, and for several years has been a waiter at Morrison's Hotel, run by the morally-compromised Mrs. Moore (Serena Brabazon). Albert—and here I should mention that I shall follow Moore's novella and refer to Albert with female pronouns—has been miserly saving her wages and tips towards the purchase of a tobacconist's shop: somewhere, she says, where a woman can work behind the counter. Albert has no personal relationships: her desperate need to hide her own identity, and some horrible experiences in her youth, have led her to create an emotionally autonomous life for herself.
This solitary existence, however, is challenged by the arrival at the hotel of housepainter Hubert Page (McTeer), who is assigned to share Albert's bed and thus discovers her secret. Quickly, however, Albert learns that Mr. Page is also a woman passing as a man, and is herself happily married to a woman. The idea takes root in Albert for the first time that she does not necessarily have to spend her life alone, and so she sets her sights on Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid having an affair with a loutish handyman named Joe (Aaron Johnson). When Helen and Joe decide to exploit Albert's interest and squeeze some money out of her, a strangely dark love triangle ensues.
What makes Albert Nobbs somewhat interesting is that, on the spectrum of human sexuality, neither Albert nor Mr. Page are easily located. Film has no trouble dealing with heterosexuality, and is getting better about dealing with homosexuality, but sexual identity that exists somewhere between these poles is rarely represented. Albert seems almost completely asexual—Moore's novella says she is living as neither a man nor a woman but as a "perhapser"—but whether she ever had any sexual desires, or whether she has sublimated them from years of hiding, is unclear.
It is clear that she does not desire Helen: what she desires is a fuller life, complete with companionship. (Close's performance is interesting, but not entirely sympathetic: Albert is often touching in her alienation and loneliness, but she is also childlike, brittle, and strangely otherworldly: someone for whom human interaction is almost completely alien.) McTeer has the easier character, and the more successful one: for all they have in common, Hubert Page is, in many ways, the opposite of Albert. Earthy, self-confident, and self-possessed, Hubert knows who she is, and is emotionally open in a way that Albert could never be. Having left an unhappy marriage, Hubert has made a life with a woman (Bronagh Gallagher), and Albert assumes it is an arrangement of convenience like the kind she seeks for herself. When she learns differently, it draws a stark line between the two women, and demonstrates that the two are perhaps not as alike as they originally appeared: it also suggests that Albert's tragedy, perhaps, is not so much her socio-economic circumstances as her inability to accept herself and truly engage with other human beings.
The problem with Albert Nobbs is that it doesn't open itself up any more than its title character does, or really pursue its potentially interesting themes about self-created identity. Having taken several liberties with Moore's story, it is frustrating that the film does not go further and really explore who either of these women are: for example, the sexuality and sex lives of both Albert and Hubert—which would seem to be fairly important subjects—are rather awkwardly avoided. This is not period-appropriate prudishness—since there are some rather modern and straightforward depictions of heterosexual sex elsewhere in the film—but instead comes across more as a failure of nerve and imagination.
And it is also a failure of craft, for Close's performance, Garcia's direction, and the pinched, humorless screenplay (by Close, Gabriella Prekop, and John Banville) all share the same problem: they are all curiously flat, and frustratingly restrained. Despite its promising questions about appearance and identity, the film never really dives beneath, nor rises above, the surface of its source material. As a result, Albert Nobbs never feels like anything more than a tepid adaptation of a minor short story.