This is how good Glenn Close is as the eponymous ALBERT NOBBS. At one point her character, who has lived as a man for decades in Victorian Ireland, dons a dress for an outing to the beach and it just looks wrong. Close, the epitome of feminine elegance, doesnt clomp around, nor does she become entangled in the voluminous skirts. Instead, she conveys curious discomfort that a petticoat causes Albert, the familiar unfamiliarity of being expected to walk like a lady, and accepting the tipped hat of passing gentleman.
Albert is a quiet little man to the patrons of Morrison’s, the not quite posh Dublin hotel where she works as a waiter. Reserved, controlled, and seemingly serene, Albert is seen but not seen by everyone around her. She performs flawlessly as both waiter and man, relishing her independence and the tidy sum she has saved up in order to start her own business. What transpires is like a melancholy Irish ballad full of tragedy and courage that turns on a flea. That would be the one that gets under the binding that keeps Alberts secret and leads to that secret being revealed to the one person who can best understand why she has chosen to live as the opposite sex. Its one of the many convenient coincidences that occur throughout that advance the story and demand good-natured patience in the viewer.
The revelation leads Albert, who has led a quiet, solitary life amid a crowd, to see another possibility for herself. To be less alone. To share a cozy future with a wife, specifically fellow servant Helen (Mia Wasikowska). In one of the films best moments, Albert wonders aloud and with a striking sense of innocence about when she should tell her bride the truth lurking beneath her clothes. There are complications beyond those of mere gender, with a feckless rival for Helens affections, and a disaster of biblical proportions striking the hotel. There is also the odd contrast of situations between Albert and Helen, the former finding independence by being in service, while Helen has not. The further contrast of just who the better man is, Albert or Albert’s rival, is another, and one that is equally ironic.
Closes performance is flawless, so much so that its possible that she could have passed to an audience not expecting to see her in the role. Its not just the impersonation, though, its the carefully serene external control juxtaposed with the bright emotions that tremble and leap just the below the surface of her incandescent face. Her heart beating faster with hope, or sinking with disappointment, are visible in the eyes that speak eloquently. Close never cheapens the performance by overplaying the masculine, the voice is lowered, for example, but not too much. Close finds the feminine side of Albert and plays to that while maintaining a self-possession that for that era is, though timid, unquestionably male.
Alberts is not the only misleading façade at Morrison’s, of course. There is a sharp irony that the people who inhabit or pass through the hotel assume all manner of personas, and see what they want to see when it comes to others. Tellingly, though, small children, not yet inured to the hypocrisy of civilization see right through the disguise, but say nothing, accepting it with puzzled equanimity that they quickly forget.
ALBERT NOBBS with its rich variety of human experience is a fine commentary on the many masks people wear, and a slightly heavy-handed one about the coarseness of the gentility.