Over the years, we’ve seen many characters cross-dress in the movies for various reasons. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis pretended to be female musicians to escape gangsters in “Some Like It Hot.” Dustin Hoffman went dowdy to become a soap opera diva in “Tootsie.” Barbra Streisand concealed her femininity to become a Talmud scholar in “Yentl,” while Julie Andrews disguised herself as an upscale drag queen in “Victor/Victoria.” And let’s not forget Jaye Davidson playing “The Crying Game.”
Glenn Close takes her turn at being a temporary transvestite in “Albert Nobbs,” in which she plays an abandoned Irishwoman, circa 1900. The ersatz Albert chose to dress in manly garb as a teenager after surviving a gang rape; three decades later, she is still pretending. All the world’s a stage, and Albert must always remain in character, even though she’s painfully miscast.
Although the set-up might seem to promise wackiness, “Nobbs” is a mostly dour, solemn, quiet little film, shot by director Rodrigo Garcia in subdued, dullish colors that echo its heroine’s attempts to remain hidden in plain sight.
The screenplay — based on George Moore’s story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” which, in turn, was the basis for a play Close starred in back in 1982 — theorizes that Albert’s strategy was not uncommon in the day. The movie speculates that there was a thriving underground community of outcast women and lesbians obscuring their identities to live and work in the male-dominated, largely Catholic-centric world of early 20th-century Dublin.
It’s an intriguing idea, but the potential for a truly provocative scenario is diluted because, 1) almost every male character in the film is loathsome, abusive or cold, and 2) its central figure is so passive and one-note. Granted, this is perfectly credible behavior given the context of the action; unfortunately, it also robs the story of its spark. In “Yentl,” Streisand had to rein herself in to play a mousy student, but the character’s insights and opinions burst through in songs that provided a lively commentary track. Albert has no such expressive outlet, and watching someone fervently suppress emotion for two hours does not exactly make for dynamic drama, even though Close’s performance is enormously sincere and meticulously measured: She clearly loves being able to make every minor gesture, every twitch into something significant.
Yet Close’s star vehicle ends up being hijacked by the tag team of Janet McTeer and Mia Wasikowska. As the snippy, frisky maid who catches Albert’s eye and hopes to get a hold of his bank account, Wasikowska is tart and lively, a prepossessing beauty with more ambition (and avarice) than seductive skill. McTeer, with her riveting, headlight-bright eyes and captivating screen presence, rips through the movie like a tremor in a tearoom: Playing Hubert Page, a rough-edged sort who shares Albert’s secret — and has a few of her own — McTeer dares you not to watch her and defies you not to care about Hubert’s predicament. So “Albert Nobbs” splits down the middle, as McTeer demands your attention while Close politely and apologetically requests it, if you might possibly have the time to spare. Who wins the contest is hardly surprising.