When a chef ruins an extraordinary ingredient, that’s a dish nobody would recommend. But when a movie takes an extraordinary performance and surrounds it with mush, it may still be worth seeing.
Case in point: “Albert Nobbs.” Or, rather, Glenn Close, who is the element that is worthwhile in the misguided film. Close plays the title character, a woman who masquerades as a male butler in 19th century Dublin. It’s not clear to us why Albert does this. Is he (I’ll use that pronoun because that’s how he regards himself) attracted to women? Is he transgender? Is he just tired of being ignored as a female? It’s not clear to Albert, either.
Close’s performance, on the other hand, is a marvel of clarity. Averting her eyes to avoid discovery and to conform to the class standards of the time, walking with a meek shuffle and cowering when forced into a dress, Close conveys the idea that Albert is a person who is trying to figure out a way to fit into the world. It’s a lovely performance, capped off by the look of wonder on Albert’s face when he suddenly realizes he is not the only Dubliner who is not what he seems.
The creamy, handsome look of “Albert Nobbs” matches Close’s work, but the film falls short in most other aspects. The subplots in the hotel where Albert works all feel very sub-“Downton Abbey,” the casting is suspect (did people really have washboard abs back when servants still used washboards?) and the symbolism is far too emphatic. There is, for instance, a costume party where – just in case we didn’t get that everyone is playing a role, much like Albert always does – a man who is dressed as a doctor tells Albert, “We are both disguised as ourselves.” Um, yeah. We get it, “Albert Nobbs,” but thanks for treating us like we failed eighth-grade English.
“Albert Nobbs” seems not to have decided whether its fascinating central character was a dreamer, a pathfinder or a type of outsider who was common but ignored. That’s too bad because Close’s work deserves to be seen, but it also may be partly her fault. In addition to co-producing the film and writing the lyrics for its theme song, she also collaborated on the iffy screenplay.