In 19th century Ireland, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a waiter at a Dublin hotel. However, all is not what is seems, as Albert is actually a woman who has lived as a man for 30 years to survive independently in a male-dominated society.
But after a hotel painter, Hubert (Janet McTeer), discovers his secret, and reveals one of his own, Albert decides he wants more from life, and goes in search of love, becoming embroiled in the tumultuous relationship of handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson) and hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), as he tries to fulfil his lifelong dream of owning and running his own business.
Close, who co-wrote and produced the film, and was the driving force behind its production, is outstanding as Albert, mastering the required level of androgyny with apparent ease, and demonstrating a level of control and restraint in her performance that captures the character’s loneliness and isolation. However, this has a tendency to make Albert appear stilted, somewhat distant, and as a result difficult to relate to or invest in emotionally.
The remainder of the cast, including Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) are strong, but this can’t quite make up for what is lacking from the film’s titular character.
The romantic side of the film is held back by the obvious constraints implied by the main character’s secret identity, and the ageing Albert’s pursuit of youthful maid Helen, less than half his age, comes across as creepy rather than endearing, and makes him appear less innocently optimistic, more hopelessly deluded. This combination of factors means Albert Nobbs unfortunately falls short of the mark.
In spite of its problems, Albert Nobbs tackles its issues of gender identity head on, demonstrating sensitivity for its subject matter, and providing an interesting insight into gender roles in the 19th century. Close’s deep commitment to the role, and the project as a whole, is evident throughout, but this can’t mask the problems Albert Nobbs faces as a consequence of both its unusual premise and the awkward romantic elements which don’t quite succeed.