Albert Nobbs

Based on a George Moore novella, Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close, has some plusses. It's plausible-ultimately, it's a story of the kind of thing that used to happen all the time
INCREDIBLY CLOSE: Glenn Close plays a woman hiding as a man in 'Albert Nobbs.'

Based on a George Moore novella, Albert Nobbs has some pluses. It's plausible—ultimately, it's a story of the kind of thing that used to happen all the time. It's a well-staged and beautifully costumed re-creation of 1898 Dublin for Ulysses-philes to daydream over; the silhouettes of women walking the flat sands next to the surf make one think of Gerty MacDowell. Brendan Gleeson plays a richly bearded, hard-drinking physician, well able to bear the heavy lifting of delivering the most tragic lines in the film. And Albert Nobbs has Janet McTeer.

What Albert Nobbs doesn't have is a director who can harmonize the various acting styles. Rodrigo Garcia helms with the same fits and starts of his connect-the-dots dramas, most notably Nine Lives.

Glenn Close is the frozen-in-fear title character, a waiter at a pretentious hotel. She hides her sex in male clothes, and also conceals a trove of hard-earned money hidden in the floorboards of her dingy room. Close's portrait of a bound-in woman is the kind of sad you can admire rather than feel. Maybe wearing a derby makes you try too earnestly to emulate Chaplin in the wistful parts. It's also hard for an actress to make the idea of fatal purity compelling—Nobbs says, "A life without decency is unbearable."

As moviegoers, we're trained to admire the proactive indecent characters, so we keep wanting to see more of McTeer as Nobbs' acquaintance: a laborer who is also a male impersonator, who has managed to successfully live as a man. McTeer is a stage icon, but she previously hadn't made a movie where she didn't seem overpowering. Perhaps among the slackness of the direction here, and among the occasional anachronism of the lines ("I don't want to be that person"), there was room for McTeer to take charge.

Her cropped hair, her Plains-Indian profile and her remarkable sturdiness (in womanly drag, her shoulders look broad enough to burst the corset holding her in) is a treat to watch for anyone who likes strong women. McTeer's impulsiveness—and the spark of anger in her—transcends Albert Nobbs' slight smell of mold.

Albert Nobbs

R; 113 min.

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