“Albert Nobbs” is a complex movie about a simple man with grand dreams — and a big secret.
The fastidious Mr. Nobbs works as a waiter at a posh Irish hotel. He carefully tracks the tips he receives from his stylish clients, saving up to buy a tobacconist’s shop (even though he does not know how to smoke or even roll a cigarette). He lives a quiet lonely life, carefully locking the door to his Spartan room, wandering the streets of 19th century Dublin looking like an early version of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and squirreling away his growing stockpile beneath a loose floorboard.
All that changes when he is briefly forced to share his room with Hubert Page, a painter who has been hired to spruce up the hotel. The two men soon realize they share a secret — both are really women who have dressed as men to escape poverty and sexual violence.
The two women embody very different modes of masculine behavior. Nobbs, played by Glenn Close, declares that “life without decency is unbearable.” She binds herself in a scratchy undergarment, dresses in formal clothing and seems to vanish into the background, watching the action around her rather than participating.
On the other hand, Page, played by Janet McTeer, employs a different strategy. She disguises herself in a set of baggy clothes stolen from her abusive husband. Page swaggers through life, smoking, flirting with women and slapping men on the back. In fact, Page has married a woman, leaving a mystified Nobbs wondering, but too timid to ask, how Page told his wife about his sexual identity.
Inspired by Page, Nobbs expands his dream. He envisions taking on a wife who can provide companionship, respectability and free labor for the shop. He starts “walking out” with one of the maids, not realizing she is already having an affair with the handyman at the hotel. Nobbs is too busy fantasizing about their life together and wondering when he will reveal his own secret.
Both Close and McTeer offer vibrant portrayals of women forced to live their lives as men, making clear and interesting choices about the fascinating similarities and differences between their two characters. Close has a long history with the character. She created the role onstage in 1982, and since then has worked to bring the material to cinematic life. She produced the movie, co-wrote the screenplay with award-winning Irish novelist John Banville and Gabriella Prekop and even provided the lyrics for “Lay Your Head Down,” the lovely ballad that closes the movie (which opens today in Washington).
The press materials describe Nobbs as “trapped in a prison of her own making,” but that seems rather inaccurate, although there is a scene where Nobbs and Page put on dresses and Nobbs runs giddily along the shore.
Nobbs is not simply a straight woman masquerading as a man to get by, but somewhere on the trans spectrum. He shows no sexual interest in men. His interest in women is more social and economic than sexual, but he is obsessed with the question of when to reveal his true sex to Helen (even though he never touches her and he does not realize that Helen and her beau are just milking him for gifts) and the mystery of when Page revealed his true sex to his wife Kathleen, so he thinks about having an intimate physical relationship of some kind with a woman.
The film — which is more interested in telling Nobbs’ story than identifying his gender identity — deals with these murky issues with a velvet touch. Even the rape and poverty mentioned as part of his story are discussed but not shown.
Close and McTeer are surrounded by a strong supporting cast and crew including Mia Wasikowska as the calculating maid who is the object of Nobbs’ affection, Pauline Collins as the affected proprietress of Morrison’s Hotel and Brendan Gleeson as the kindly doctor who lives at the hotel.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers appears all too briefly as a party-loving and occasionally gender-bending aristocratic guest at the hotel. Designers Patrizia von Brandenstein and Pierre-Yves Gayraud lovingly recreate period Dublin in rich detail and director Rodrigo Garcia (known for HBO’s “In Treatment”) directs with a sure if somewhat too steady hand (the movie could have used a little less of Nobbs’ timidity and a little more of Page’s bravado). Nonetheless, “Albert Nobbs” is an interesting consideration of class and gender that sheds a gentle light on both a remarkable character and our own times.