For a Hollywood passion project, “Albert Nobbs” makes for rather dull and spiritless cinema.
The Victorian-era gender drama is based on 19th-century Irish writer George Moore's short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs.” Glenn Close starred in a 1982 stage production of the tale and subsequently worked for almost three decades to bring it to the big screen, ultimately cowriting, coproducing and starring in the film.
Unfortunately, none of her fire for the story sparks on-screen. With its stilted storytelling, painstaking period authenticity and potential Big Issue relevance, “Albert Nobbs” instead qualifies as Oscar bait of the worst kind.
And it succeeded on that score: Close garnered her sixth Academy Award nomination for her turn as the title character, a quiet, prim and proper waiter at a posh Dublin hotel. No one knows Albert is actually a woman passing as a man for financial and safety reasons. In fact, she has been pretending to be Albert for so many years, she no longer seems to have a female identity or even a clear memory of her given name.
Albert's secret is threatened when the hotel's ambitious owner (Pauline Collins) hires a painter named Hubert Page to freshen up the place. The proprietress orders Albert to share a room and bed with the laborer, which reduces Close and her character to old-biddy hand-wringing and then girlish hysterics when Hubert quickly discovers that he is really a she.
But the strapping painter vows not to reveal the truth and the next day goes a step further, dramatically divulging to Albert that he, too, is actually a woman masquerading as a man. While the repressed Albert has virtually cut himself off from the rest of humanity, Hubert (Janet McTeer, who received her second career Oscar nomination in the supporting role) heartily makes the most of his circumstances, revealing that he even has a loving wife, a seamstress named Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), at home.
Albert has been squirreling away money for years with the goal of opening a tobacco shop, and meeting Hubert inspires him to seek a wife to run it with him.
For some inadequately explained reason, Albert sets his lofty and rather naive sights on the hotel's youngest and most fetching waitress, the flirtatious Helen (Mia Wasikowska), and begins courting her knowing full well that the girl is engaged in a stormy romance with the brutish boiler repairman, Joe (Aaron Johnson).
As the movie winds toward its inevitably tragic conclusion, director Rod
Worse, the movie wastes great actors like Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in throwaway bit parts, while the heralded performances from Close and McTeer are revealed as convincing imitations rather than true embodiments of their characters.
Bonus features: Audio commentary with Close and Garcia and deleted scenes.
— Brandy McDonnell