I suppose this is an unusual occurrence for most film critics, or most people in general, even in a time when Chaz Bono is out on a book/documentary/Dancing with the Stars publicity walkabout, but I personally know three female-to-male transgender guys. And all of them had to explicitly tell me that they had been born biologically female. There was no "It's Pat" stuff going on at all. They are men.
So I feel pretty confident when I say that this movie arrives with some minor presentation problems. I know that it's set in late 19th century Ireland and public recognition of people who lived as the opposite sex at that time wasn't part of the common dialogue, so to walk up to Janet McTeer's supporting character, Hubert -- a woman living as a man -- and tell him, "Look, you're not exactly passing here" wouldn't have ever happened. But for all the farmer clothes, the gruff, take-charge demeanor and the broad-shouldered man-padding, McTeer's expressive qualities are pretty distinctly feminine. She makes for a more likely man than, say, Barbra Streisand in Yentl, but still.
This doesn't stop Glenn Close's otherwise extremely meek Albert Nobbs character one bit. He's been living as a man for just as long, and when you think you're the only trans in the village and then you meet the other one, you go for it. Nobbs attaches himself to Hubert because he desperately needs a confidante, and even though Hubert is less overall convincing as male -- Close, thanks to her character's introverted, shut-down personality, communicates a kind of erased, evaporated quality as Nobbs, the kind of angular, asexual little man that nobody would take notice of at all -- he's got the swagger. And Nobbs could use some of that.
Nobbs wants to quit his job as a hotel servant so he socks away every single pence he earns. His dream is to open a tobacco shop and take young, pregnant maid Mia Wasikowska as his bride. Some problems with that: Wasikowska's just not that into him, clinging to abusive handyman Aaron Johnson instead. And Nobbs is so tightly bound, both literally and figuratively, that it's impossible to imagine him ever approaching a woman romantically in the first place. The key moments of Close's performance involve hints of hope on Nobbs's face, as he watches McTeer move through life, realizing that he might not have to fear his own existence quite so much.
It's a quiet little movie, as circumspect as Nobbs himself, the kind of story that makes even born-too-late antiquarians grateful that they live in the present instead of the bad old days when social rules were strict and consequences for bending them were grave. And if it's guilty of too much understatement, of being too muted, you can just chalk that up to the timid nature of its title character infusing every scene with the sadness of somebody voluntarily burying himself alive.