Film review | Albert Nobbs – Life’s a drag for Glenn Close’s gender-bending 19th-century waiter

Glenn Close & Mia Wasikowska star in Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs. It’s a dull, ordinary name with just a hint of the risible; and you could easily apply the same terms to the name’s bearer: a shy, unassuming hotel waiter in late-19th-century Dublin. Yet, unimagined by the hotel’s clientele and staff, the name hides an astonishing secret: Albert, played by Glenn Close, is in fact a woman.

Having adopted male disguise to escape poverty in her youth, she has sustained the deception ever since, stashing away her tips and counting her pennies until she can fulfil her dream of opening a tobacconist’s shop. The arrival at the hotel of two outsiders, however, throws her life into turmoil.

The first stranger is jobbing house painter Hubert Page, with whom Albert, much to his mortification, is forced to share a room and a bed. The bluff newcomer quickly discerns Albert’s secret and then reveals that he too is a woman in disguise. Played with swaggering charisma by Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer, Page has been living a far more expansive existence than the repressed Albert, who is both rattled and inspired by his example.

Aaron Johnson & MiaWasikowska star in Albert Nobbs

But when Albert, hoping to find a ‘wife’ to help him run his proposed shop, hesitantly begins to court pretty maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), the hotel’s other newcomer, cocky young boilerman Joe (Aaron Johnson), sees a chance to exploit the situation.

Putting the story of Albert Nobbs on screen has been a long-cherished project for Close, who first played the character – based on a 1927 novel by Irish writer George Moore – in an Obie-winning stage performance in New York in 1982.

Not everyone will be won over by Close’s passion for the project; for some, Albert’s life and ambitions will seem too pinched and narrow to excite our interest and sympathy. But director Rodrgio Garcia (son of Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) successfully treads the delicate line between pathos and humour and Close’s Oscar-nominated performance really is remarkable.

It’s true that her character couldn’t be more buttoned-up, but beneath the reserve she conveys a lifetime of loneliness, hurt and quiet heartache. Albert Nobbs. Yes, an ordinary name but an extraordinary performance.

Movie Talk star rating:

On general release from Friday 27th April.

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