Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer
Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Mother and Child”)
Written by: Glenn Close (debut), John Banville (“The Last September”), Gabriella Prekop (“VII. Oliver”)
When it comes to cross-dressing and film, male characters color coordinating handbags and heels are typically played for laughs (“Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Tootsie,” “The Birdcage”). Those films wherein a female character shows off her masculine side tend more to the dramatic (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Yentl”). Sure, there are exceptions, but in Hollywood a boy in pantyhose is funny; a girl speaking in a lower register is just too heartbreaking to imagine.
That gender-bending double standard carries over to the occasionally sympathetic but more often stagnant period drama “Albert Nobbs.” Adapted from a short story by Irish novelist George Moore, Nobbs stars five-time Academy Award-nominee Glenn Close (“Dangerous Liaisons”) as a woman living in 19th-century Dublin who disguises herself as a man so she can work as a waiter in an upscale hotel. Waiting on stuffy guests, “Albert” is saving each shilling she earns so she can purchase her own tobacco shop. When Albert’s secret is accidentally revealed, however, her once seemingly attainable dream evolves into something much more complicated.
As Albert, Close takes on the most daring role of her career since the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction.” The physical look of the character may not be nearly as unbelievable as Julie Andrews’ in the 1982 musical comedy “Victor Victoria,” but even the noteworthy makeup and prosthetics are a bit bizarre looking. Confined inside her black suit and tie for most of the film, it’s Close’s nervous glances, awkward smiles, and perfunctory movements that actually bring to life this reclusive human being whose character depth should be far more involved than the one-dimensional script would have you believe. “Such a kind little man,” one hotel guest says when describing Albert to her husband. Unfortunately, the rest of the screenplay doesn’t do much better in bringing Albert to light.
Credited as a co-writer, Close, who also wrote the lyrics for the original song “Lay Your Head Down” sung by Sinead O’Connor, cuts corners when attempting to expand on the emotional agony Albert endures. It’s only during a few scenes where she speaks candidly with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a house painter also facing an identity crisis, when a more meaningful narrative is exposed beyond the tea parties and gossiping help. McTeer, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1999 for “Tumbleweeds,” matches Close shot for shot when they share the screen. The collaboration is poignant, but ultimately gets sidelined in favor of an insignificant relationship between a naive young maid (Mia Wasikowska) and an insensitive maintenance man (Aaron Johnson). Also lost somewhere inside the script is actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“Match Point”), who shows up as a hotel guest for no legitimate reason other than to don Victorian Era garb.
Directed by Rodrigo García, whose last film was the touching 2009 drama “Mother and Child,” “Albert Nobbs” is a picture lacking passion and genuine conflict. It’s also missing that great sense of female empowerment it desperately wants to convey; in fact, it seemingly has no idea where to begin. Putting Albert in a dress and sending him to run on a beach just doesn’t cut it.