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'Nobbs': A Woman, Trapped In A Man Of Her Making

Mia Wasikowska (left) and Glenn Close are an unlikely couple in <em>Albert Nobbs,</em> a forlorn romance about a woman passing as a man to find work in 19th-century Ireland.
Patrick Redmond
Roadside Attractions
Mia Wasikowska (left) and Glenn Close are an unlikely couple in <em>Albert Nobbs,</em> a forlorn romance about a woman passing as a man to find work in 19th-century Ireland.

"Such a kind little man." The object of this offhand remark, delivered from the lofty height of 19th-century British aristocracy, is Albert Nobbs, a Dublin hotel waiter flattened so unobtrusively against a wall it's a wonder the noblewoman noticed him at all.

In the opening scenes of the warm and likable new indie drama Albert Nobbs, the waiter comes across as a poor relation of Anthony Hopkins' Mr. Stevens, the self-abnegating butler in the 1993 Merchant-Ivory movie The Remains of the Day. Except that where Stevens blindly identified with a blue-blooded class that used, abused and discarded him once he outlived his usefulness, Nobbs' timid servility is born of poverty, desperation and the daily terror of being found out.

For Nobbs, we soon learn, is not a he but a she, her breasts tightly corseted into submission under a shabby black suit. Having passed as a man for nearly 20 years, Nobbs is so lost to her true self that we never learn her real name. And yes, that is Glenn Close, sporting an unhealthy pallor, swiveling eyes and prosthetic ears that would give Mr. Spock a run for his money.

The actress first played Nobbs almost 30 years ago, in a stage adaptation of a short story by Irish writer George Moore. Here she portrays the hapless servant with an edge of Chaplinesque buffoonery that's disconcerting: Far from being an exuberant little tramp, Nobbs is tragically repressed, as we soon find out when his cover is blown by Hubert Page, a house painter who's assigned to share Nobbs' bedroom overnight.

Neglected and abused as a child, Albert dressed as a man and found work in service, and down the years she has effaced not only her femininity but herself so thoroughly that all that's left of her personality is a secret dream of owning her own tobacconist shop, complete with a pretty wife behind the counter.

Hubert's matter-of-fact kindness emboldens Albert to declare his love for Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a pert chambermaid whose only bargaining chip in life is the abundant sexuality she lavishes on Joe, a plumber with his own dreams of escape. (He's played by the studly Aaron Johnson, who was John Lennon in Nowhere Boy.) Anyone but Albert, who's been detached from reality for so long, could see that it can't end well.

Sensitively directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who has built a career making domestic dramas (among them last year's Mother and Child) that are sympathetic to women in trouble, Albert Nobbs is blessed with a fine ensemble cast. Prominent among them are Pauline Collins as the snobby, opportunistic hotel owner; and Brendan Gleeson as the hard-drinking in-house doctor who's lived enough to show compassion for all kinds of human frailty, his own included.

Handsomely mounted in shades of golden brown, the movie nonetheless has the slightly stiff feel of a project whose budget has been so severely trimmed that when it ventures outside the hotel kitchen, it looks like the set of a Broadway period musical, complete with on-tap snowflakes and umbrella'd extras arm in arm.

That's a minor quibble; Albert Nobbs is all about the inner life, or its absence, in a woman who has surrendered too much of herself in order to survive. But the movie's beating heart is not where it means to be, in the doomed relationship between Albert and the feckless Helen.

I'm pretty sure that the terrific British actress Janet McTeer never meant to act Close out of every frame they share, but she surely does as Hubert, a cheerful bruiser who brings his own secrets to the party, as well as a monumentally fake broken nose, a kind heart and a practical gift for converting adversity to advantage.

McTeer's sly, wise rendering of Hubert, a person every bit as battered by life as Albert has been, but with enough residual core and joie de vivre to reinvent himself on his own terms, picks out the meaning of Albert Nobbs, which is less about gender identity or emergent lesbianism than it is about the importance of not being fearful. (Recommended)

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