Glenn Close played Albert Nobbs off-Broadway 30 years ago and though this screen version represents 15 years’ worth of effort to get it translated to the big screen, the result is an uncomfortable joyless effort, which, despite its Oscar nominations, is extremely hard to get behind.
Set in the 19th century Ireland, the titular Nobbs is a dour waiter at a prestigious but down-on-its-luck hotel. But he’s nursing a secret – “he” is secretly a she and has been living as a man for decades. She lives a quiet solitary life, hoarding her pennies under the floorboards while dreaming of one day purchasing a tobacconist’s. No one pays her much attention, much less suspects her gender – most see her as a fussy, strange little man.
That is until her life is turned upside down when she meets the outspoken housepainter Hubert (Janet McTeer) who, after sharing a room with Albert one night, reveals that he too is a woman living as a man and has even taken a wife.
Inspired by Hubert and mind awash with fresh ideas, Albert begins a naïve courtship of one of the maids, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), oblivious to the fact that Helen and her boyfriend Joe have their eyes firmly fixed on Albert’s purse strings.
The problem is that it’s hard to care about Nobbs, whose story is tragic – living as a man allowed her to escape the brutality of life as an orphaned girl – but not in any way interesting. Close frustratingly never allows us to pierce Nobbs’ withdrawn shell to reveal the spark of humanity within, delivering such a shut-in performance that Nobbs is hard to care about.
Incredible though the makeup is, Close doesn’t quite past muster as a man but it’s easy enough to believe that no one would question Nobbs’ audacity. Unfortunately, the effect is actually rather creepy as Close bears quite a striking resemblance to a Bicentennial Man-era Robin Williams albeit with the trademark liveliness.
Less successful is Janet McTeer, who is so transparently a woman dressed as a man (despite the affected blokish mannerisms) that it’s impossible to believe anyone could be taken in by the deception. Hubert’s exuberant lust for life is something that brings some much needed vitality to the film – unconvincing as the gender-bending is – and it’s shame that she’s not given more scenes.
Nobbs is not only an unsympathetic character but a naively irritating one too. His courtship of Helen feels not only ill-advised but vaguely unsettling given the age difference and it’s impossible to believe that someone would have such a crippling lack of emotional insight. It starts off implausible and rapidly becomes melodramatic and laughable.
Elsewhere, the below-stairs characters are a predictable bunch – unctuous proprietress Pauline Collins wrings her hands, drunkard doctor Brendan Gleeson carries on with one of the maids and Joe and Helen’s relationship winds its way to its inevitable torpid conclusion.
Close and McTeer deserve their Oscar nods, as does the makeup team, but with characters and setting so dreary, it’s a tough one to actually enjoy.