Of course, it’s no manner of plot spoiler to announce upfront that the actor playing the protagonist in Albert Nobbs is, in fact, an actress, despite the male-leaning tilt of Glenn Close’s name. We’ve all known and loved her in numerous impressive roles over the years, and the switcheroo is plain as day. But if we can pull back and imagine an unaware viewer encountering her/him for the first time, the measure of Close’s work in manly mien might rest in the awareness of her effective gender doppelganger feat. Glenn Close is the prim, detail-oriented, and impeccably cool 19th-century waiter in Dublin’s Morrison Hotel, harboring secret dreams of escape and a blurry backstory. We haven’t seen this impressive a gender switch on the big screen since Mrs. Doubtfire did his/her business.
Close herself knew she had something special going with Albert Nobbs, based on Irish writer George Moore’s short story The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, a role she first played onstage 15 years ago and has worked on bringing to the screen ever since. The timing and age factor, as it happens, are just right. Telegraphing a depth of feeling and experience behind a carefully decorous and self-dignified exterior, a minimalist triumph if there ever was one, Close at this age is ideal.
Nobbs is a tale about a woman with a hardscrabble youth who settles on her new life as a man out of necessity in a tough employment market for women, a life that places her in an environment with some dignity. (“Life without decency is unbearable,” she tells a confidant.) Nobbs is a faithful and faceless member of “the help,” who finally pursues long-festering dreams of opening her own tobacco shop and taking a “wife” (debating on the timing of when to break the news of what’s beneath her well-pressed man’s suit). The scenario is tragic and comic, on some levels, and inspiring on another.
Ultimately, Close’s masterfully understated performance is the best reason to see this otherwise sometimes unfocused film, much as Meryl Streep’s Thatcher is the only real reason to bother with catching The Iron Lady. Close as Nobbs amounts to a potent characterization of another iron-plated figure, vastly more anonymous, but augustly human.