Glenn Close is very still in her latest film — quiet, never cracking a smile. She plays a member of the staff of an upper-crust Dublin hotel in the late 19th century, and the idea then was to be invisible. Think of people "in service," the butlers and maids of Downton Abbey or The Remains of the Day.
And because Albert Nobbs, the title character she plays, has a secret as obvious as "his" name, the need to be invisible is compounded.
Albert Nobbs is about a woman pretending to be a man. The film, based on a George Moore short story, requires a lot more reading between the lines and understanding of Irish history and women's rights than it should. But this tale of a downtrodden woman who pretends to be a man because that's the only way she can make a living and survive makes for a poignant essay on class and gender and a splendid showcase for Close, one of the best actresses never to win an Oscar (even for this role, for which she was nominated this year).
The waiter/butler Albert is all about quiet efficiency, knowing what regular guests of Morrison's Hotel want and desire. He doesn't banter with the staff, although he notices the fetching and saucy maid, Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Albert pockets his tips and counts them each night, stashing the money beneath the floorboards of his spartan room.
Albert has a dream: a little shop, all his own, a little woman to help him run it.
The fact that Albert is a woman, binding her breasts in a corset, cutting her hair short and darkening her voice, keeps her/him on edge. Albert is terrified of being found out and losing his job.
When the boss (an imperious Brenda Fricker) orders Albert to share his room with Hubert, the house painter hired to touch up the hotel, Albert is mortified. Hubert is bound to find out. And Hubert asks the question we're all dying to ask: "So, why are you dressed as a fella?"
The answer isn't all that satisfactory. And since Janet McTeer plays "Hubert," we know we're wading even deeper into issues of the glass ceiling of the day.
The film, co-written by Close and directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child), frustrates us far beyond that dangling question and the suggestion that Albert's practical-minded role-playing has somehow affected Albert's sexual orientation.
Albert's clumsy attempts at courting the fetching Helen are more pathetic than romantic. He is an asexual being whose disguise — that of a servant who buries feelings, desires and personality — only makes him more of a mystery.
Garcia and Close fill this world with terrific character players. Brendan Gleeson plays a hard-drinking doctor who lives in the Morrison, and Pauline Collins, Bronagh Gallagher, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maria Doyle Kennedy people this world of poverty, class and the faint hope that "going to America" will save them.
For all its texture and subtexts, Albert Nobbs never quite achieves the pathos it aims for or the sociology lesson it wants to teach. That keeps it from transcending the stunt of having such fine performers as Close and McTeer as cross-dressers, a stunt too easy to see through to let the movie ride on their terrific performances alone.