Glenn Close first met the character of Albert Nobbs when she portrayed him in the stage play 30 years ago and she’s tried hard to bring him to the big screen ever since. Watching her adaptation with director Rodrigo García, it’s clear why she worked so hard to share him with us. It seems like her journey bringing this to the screen parallels Albert's experience, and the film serves as a bittersweet testimony to both of them.
The story is nothing particularly new. It feels a little like Gosford Park with more emphasis on poor, expendable servants that pretty much lived a half step ahead of death at all times. I didn't realize that there were women dressing up as men in order to hold jobs and keep themselves alive in 19th century Britain, but it certainly makes sense. This is the lesson Albert learns as a 14-year-old who doesn't know her given name, much less who her mother was, so she does what she has to in order to survive. And it works--the story opens with her as a middle-aged "male" butler in a hotel, having achieved her primary goal of staying alive, but saving money and secretly wishing for more. Glenn Close uses the material to her full advantage, with her eyes working overtime to convey everything you need to know. Her performance is nothing short of spectacular.
She's not alone in making this tale memorable. Everyone else in the cast is a sturdy link in the quietly hopeful story's chain, including the always interesting and staggeringly talented Mia Wasikowska as the young, spirited Helen, the object of the man Nobbs’ affection. Brendan Gleeson is gruff and lovable as Dr. Holloran juxtaposed against Pauline Collins as the deplorable hotel owner Mrs. Baker. Janet McTeer surfaces as a painter who is less convincing as a man than Sarah Jessica Parker was as Josh Duhamel's love interest in New Years Eve. However, for a movie brimming with personality, I was willing to forgive its faults.
The heart of the movie beats like a drum, and got me in step from the start. Albert has found a way to maneuver through the perilous system, but that's not the end game for him/her. The meticulously accounted-for wages that s/he squirrels away for a tobacco shop can still never buy a partner to share it with. The movie skirts around directly addressing same-sex relationships but doesn't feel worse for it. Close spends the movie yearning for a reason to unleash her true spirit, but must keep it locked inside, the only evidence of it in her brightly burning eyes. When you see her innocence being taken advantage of, it’s just that much more tragic. I haven't seen a character more deserving of happiness this entire year.