Albert Nobbs (R) (113 min.) — The title character is a small, quiet man, with slicked ginger hair and thin, pale lips that may have never smiled. Albert Nobbs blends into backgrounds, as good butlers do, attentive yet unobtrusive, diligently working for an aristocratic hotel in 19th century Ireland. Except for a secret, Albert is a bit of a bore, like the movie director Rodrigo Garcia made about him.
You see, he is a she, a woman who for 30 years has posed as a man because that was the only way to land a good job in her male-dominated era. Albert offers a spotlight movie role for Glenn Close, who hasn't had one lately and now has an Oscar nomination to show for it. But like most roles involving drag, it's a thespian stunt from a recognizable talent, and no degree of marvelous in its execution can get past that distraction.
Close also co-wrote the screenplay, based on a stage play she first performed years ago, so the material is dear to her heart. Her devotion and experience with Albert is evident in each minute flicker of expression and delicately tapped emotion. But this isn't a character to build an entire movie around. Garcia appears to realize that, filling much of the time with Upstairs Downstairs-style drama contrasting the have and have-nots and including another character who practically yanks the movie out from under Close.
That would be Oscar nominee Janet McTeer as Hubert Page, a hotel guest who like Albert is a woman passing as a man. McTeer's disguise is easier to see through than Close's — a fake nose and mannish fashion is the extent of her cosmetic change. But the role is far more interesting, more expressive of its sexual repression and resignation to the way things are. It's a full-blooded character that McTeer makes the most credible in the film.
Woven into this pedestrian tale is Albert's dream of opening a tobacco shop, fully blending into society as a man. The plan can work with a wife at his side, and the maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska, sort of a Gwyneth Paltrow lite) strikes his fancy as a suitable mate. Complications arise: Helen loves a rakish man (Aaron Johnson), pushing her to exploit Albert's generosity, and a typhoid fever epidemic throws everything off course. It's inevitable that Albert and Helen won't marry, but the movie takes its sweet time confirming it.
Garcia's production is as starchy as Albert's collars and as humorless as his masquerade. The subject matter begs something to connect modern audiences with the movie's unerring period design and principles. Close's performance is technically perfect and emotionally pinched, which is exactly what her role calls for, but it doesn't make a compelling movie. C (Veterans 24 in Tampa, BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg)
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.