Director: Rodrigo García
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson
Janet McTeer, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Scene after scene, Albert Nobbs plays out like a Masterpiece Theatre production of Mr. Dullfire (in honor of that other, actually quite funny, drag event Mrs. Doubtfire).
It makes perfect sense to bring up Robin Williams' performance in that film, because Glenn Close in drag actually looks like him. In both cases we were fully aware that we were watching major film stars playing cross-dressers, the difference is that absolutely nothing in Albert Nobbs makes us care to see what lies underneath the facade.
Set in 19th century Dublin, the film opens with images of a hotel's staff preparing for work. Like most period films, this one too wants us to understand the time setting and become familiarized with the characters we will meet; therefore we are initially wowed by meticulous production design and the golden cinematography we've come to expect.
Among these workers we spot butler Albert Nobbs, who puts extra effort into his work and smiles like a satisfied fool while pleasing others around him. We also meet hotel owner Mrs. Baker (Collins), slutty maid Helen (Wasikowska) and the charismatic Dr. Holloran (Gleeson) who is somehow presented to us with a tinge of menace.
Soon we learn that Albert's quiet demeanor is because he harbors a secret: he is actually a woman and has pretended to be one for three decades in order to have a job. Once this is revealed, the film instantly falls down because neither the screenplay nor the director can make a point of where they want to take it next.
Is the secret the film's biggest twist or are we supposed to care about whether other characters will discover it or not. Considering how the screenplay makes the characters either completely under/over-written, it's a shame that Close tries to invest so much into a character that's merely a hollow vessel for the director, actress and writer to show off.
Where Close tries to infuse him with a private inner life by shutting everyone else out - including the audience - (and perhaps to cover for how badly written Albert is) the director practically ignores him and turns him into a part of the decoration. Instead García focuses his attention on truly preposterous characters and situations, like Helen (who Wasikowska tries and fails to turn into a character Angela Lansbury might've played in the 1940s) and her affair with do-no-gooder Joe (Johnson).
Time and time again it seems that nobody in the movie wants to deal with Albert...Even the spark in Close's eye when she plays him, seems to be more about the fact that she finally got to play him than about the character itself. This project has been notorious for being Close's pet cause for at least twenty-five years and by finally getting to do it, she might've become too reverential and cautious (Close is listed as a co-writer), completely forgetting to let Albert have a life of his own.
Things in the plot get more complicated with the appearance of Mr. Hubert Page (McTeer) a strange painter who not only discovers Albert's secret but reveals one of his own: he is also a woman!
We never truly understand why the film is about Albert and not about Mr. Page, considering how McTeer plays him as the only believable character in the movie. It doesn't help that it's obvious from the start that he's also a she, it forces one to wonder whether the character would've been more successful if played by an unknown actress or to just be thankful for McTeer's humanistic work.
The worst thing in the film might be how time and time again it misleads us by trying to turn Albert into a mystery based on ludicrous twists and events. For example when Hubert suggests that Albert should open up a shop, Albert imagines himself married to Helen and being a successful businessman.
However at no point are we to understand that Albert is gay and has any sexual desire for Helen, or even that he is so complexly damaged that he has come to believe that he can only attain success as a man. We are teased in a similar way when we see Albert longingly looking at a picture of a young woman. When we discover who she is, we realize that even within its faux-class attire, García is merely using Albert as a morbid circus attraction. The fact that Albert remains in character even when he delivers ridiculous monologues in his room, make it obvious that nobody in the production team had any real conscience of who Albert would be.
By thinking we're often wondering "is he or isn't he", the director loses all purpose and turns the movie into a claustrophobic tabloid-esque story. All of his characters become either too hermetic or too stereotypical for us to take any interest in and he makes no comment whatsoever on either sexual identity, Victorian repression or anything that might've interested an intelligent adult. By the time the film is over (after an overblown, melodramatic succession of events) we realize that Albert might've had a knob but the artistic team behind him lacked the balls.