Albert Nobbs - Mia Wasikowska and Glenn Close
Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) is a housemaid being courted under false pretenses by the gender-disguised waiter Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) © 2011 Roadside Attractions

Albert Nobbs the character is not what he at first seems to be, and neither is the movie of the same name. The reserved and rigidly proper 19th century waiter (played with tight-lipped perfection by Glenn Close) actually is a woman pretending to be a man in order to earn a living during desperate economic times. And although Albert Nobbs the movie initially seems to respect the almost comic ingenuity of his survival strategy, the hidden toll of living that lie turns out to be more tragic than amusing.

The movie, and a 1982 off-Broadway stage version that starred Close, were adapted from an 1895 short story by George Moore. Close co-wrote the screenplay (with novelist John Banville and Gabriella Prekop) after trying to get a film version produced for decades. The good news is that the passage of time has made Close more believable and age-appropriate for the role. With a man’s haircut and no beauty-enhancing makeup, Close credibly passes for a small, stone-faced man with an unexpected resemblance to Peter O’Toole.

Albert works at a Dublin hotel where she has been saving her shillings for 17 years under the floorboards of her sparely furnished quarters. Informed by the establishment’s Dickensianly eccentric owner Mrs Baker (Pauline Collins) that she must share her room with a bearishly large painter named Hubert, Albert panics but is forced to comply. Events that will change her life are set in motion that night by the bite of a flea that forces her to leap from the bed and tear at her clothes, revealing her sex.

Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) and Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) are rivals with very different intentions for Helen Dawes © 2011 Roadside Attractions

Terrified that the painter will expose her secret, Albert is stunned when Hubert reveals that he also is a she. At over six feet tall, and bringing to mind a beefier Adrien Brody, actress Janet McTeer is completely convincing as a man.

Introverted Albert is fascinated to learn that Hubert’s masquerade extends to living with a female wife as a happily married couple. Dreaming of a day when she can take her savings and open a tobacconist’s shop with a spouse of her own, Albert awkwardly attempts to court a hotel housemaid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who is not nearly as romantically naive as Albert assumes.

What makes Albert’s story touching is that she has hidden her true self for so long that she is unable to reconnect with her original identity. She is not a lesbian, and is a transvestite only out of necessity. Yet even when she imagines leaving her hotel job, she still pictures herself living as a man. Albert’s unique psychological state keeps the fragile, confused but desperately hopeful character fascinating. And director Rodrigo Garcia presents Albert’s unusual and sometimes very sad tale with enough respect to keep it from seeming gimmicky or bizarre.

Wasikowska is one of several excellent supporting cast members, although a subplot about her rocky relationship with unreliable suitor Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) gets a little too much screen time. Brendan Gleeson is a wise but adulterous doctor, Bronagh Gallagher is Hubert’s wife Cathleen and Mark Williams (Harry Potter‘s Arthur Weasley) is the luckless and liquor-loving waiter Sean Casey.

A genuinely interesting story that weighs the worth of self-empowerment against the cost of self-denial, Albert Nobbs is one of the most intriguing character studies of the year.

[Rating: 4 stars]

Albert Nobbs will be released December 21, 2011, in New York and December 23, 2011, in Los Angeles, and will appear in other theaters on January 27, 2012.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson