The frustrating thing about Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs is not that it’s a bad movie (and it is a bad movie), it’s that for almost an hour it seems like it might actually be a good one. The story of a woman passing herself off as a male butler working in a 19th century Dublin hotel is, for a time, effective in subtle ways that manage to overcome the stench of Oscar bait wafting off the film’s marketing materials. Unfortunately, the drama never quite takes hold and the story eventually devolves into unintentional silliness before unsatisfactorily petering out altogether.
Glenn Close, who also co-produced, co-wrote the screenplay and wrote the lyrics to the Sinead O’Connor-sung song that plays over the closing credits as the film’s final aesthetic assault on its audience, reprises her 1982 stage role as Albert Nobbs. Though it’s the juicy, eye-catching morsel of the piece, the fact of Albert’s gender deceit is less interesting in terms of story (and in terms of Close’s nice, subtle performance) than is the emotional impact on Albert of a life lived in secrecy. It’s quietly heartbreaking to see the isolation Albert has endured out of fear of getting too close to someone and having her true nature exposed. It’s sweet when Albert meets a lesbian (Janet McTeer) also passing herself off as a man in order to more easily live her life with a woman. Finally encountering someone to whom she can share her secret, Albert slowly starts to open up and to dream of the possibility of living something approaching a normal domestic life.
Eventually though, Albert’s naivety over the actual mechanics of McTeer’s relationship and her inexplicable belief that she could start a relationship of her own with a saucy scullery maid (Mia Wasikowska) without revealing to her that she’s a woman just seems silly. The farther this plot thread develops, the more awkward and less believable everything becomes. At a certain point (I’d peg it around the time Close and McTeer go clomping around town in dresses and bonnets looking like cowboys in drag) Albert Nobbs starts to become unintentionally funny. After that, the inevitably heightened drama leading to the climax is drained of all emotional power and the film loses its way.
There’s a good story to be told here, but in the end it’s a passion project that is never able to find the dramatic forest for the trees. The acting is well done all around, there are lots of interesting side characters and a well-executed period atmosphere, but none it ever comes together into a satisfying whole. After a promising first half, Albert Nobbs finally just falls apart.