Albert Nobbs's opening sequence is a typical intro to the daily grind of a buttoned-up world, with suited staffers of a late-19th-century Dublin hotel readying the rooms and hallways, and the eponymous, cross-dressing waiter (Glenn Close) lighting a lantern that slowly illuminates her face. Accompanied by the title, this glowing image is intended to be the film's most telling shot, when in fact it's an empty promise, as light is never truly shed on this guarded, cagey character. Co-written and co-produced by Close, who worked on the project for 15 years after playing the lead in a 1982 play, Albert Nobbs contains a heroine whose paranoid reserve leads to near-total impenetrability, a fault primarily caused by Close's acting. To call the actress's performance understated is itself an understatement, for even in scenes where Albert cries or cracks a smile, there's a vexing mix of reticence and over-calculation that keeps the viewer at a problematic distance. Close never provides an entry point into the soul of this complex (and otherwise nameless) person, making it harder and harder to view the character as sympathetic, and making it practically impossible to view her as an individual rather than merely the product of a movie star in drag. Due to this and more, Albert Nobbs is a headline-grabber that never transcends its gimmick, trying so hard to be socially humane that it forgets to be human.
The film is sprinkled with classic tidbits that support its thematic goals (like a costume party that explicitly nods to Albert's everyday disguise), and the setting is positioned as a whispery haven for no-no sexuality. Overseen by an imperial mistress (Pauline Collins) of inconsistent bitchiness, the hotel houses not one, but two ostensible lesbians who secretly live their lives as men (Janet McTeer's painter, Hubert Page, moves in for a time, in Albert's room, no less); a rude aristocrat (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose gayness is suggested by an adjoining bedroom door that gives his male friend easy access; and a pretty young maid, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), whose fiery hormones make her hungry for a "real man." Naturally, Helen proves the perfect unattainable object for Albert, egged on by Joe (Aaron Johnson), her opportunistic pimp of a boyfriend, to respond to Albert's advances in order to collect gifts, and realizing along the way that Albert is more of a man than Joe will ever be.
Like Albert, these elements are more purposeful than rich. An uninteresting plot advancer, the Helen and Joe relationship gets far more attention than it deserves, and even the central thrust, involving Albert's modestly rosy, long-standing plans for the future, drives itself into the ground in its attempts at solemn meaning. While Helen and Joe express the desire of many of the era's Irish to leave the country for America, Albert sees her own promised land as a simple retail space on an anonymous Dublin street, where she hopes to open a tobacco shop, live as a man with a wife, and finally achieve a sense of normalcy. A key facet of Albert's stance as a clumsily tragic character (whose backstory is needlessly, counterproductively lean), this small yet impossible dream is rendered trite by the unrelatable dreamer's private musings, a recurring mess of infernal self-chatter and daydreams whose presence is believed to be justified by Albert's comfort in solitude (eventually, even Close's repetitive, through-the-teeth uttering of "I want to open a little shop" becomes a kind of irritant).
Perhaps thrown by the challenge of having to direct women as men and not just as themselves, director Rodrigo Garcia turns in what may be his poorest effort to date, opting for a nearly airless tone, presenting a look that's sadly un-cinematic, and presiding over a collection of performers that seem to be operating on very different planes, and with accents of varying thicknesses. While Close appears to take free rein with her belabored turn as Albert, Wasikowska offers a clashing youth that's unintentionally distracting, Johnson affects his Irish drawl to leprechaunian lengths, and the superb McTeer slyly pops in and out to perform 2011's greatest and most complete act of movie theft. A pillar of androgynous vitality, McTeer finds the mojo that Close can't, her smooth portrayal of a conversely confident woman of similar circumstance accentuating her co-star's stingy, Ennis-del-Mar-on-downers approach.
There's plenty of room in the queer canon for a film like Albert Nobbs, a period piece with potentially cogent lesbian and transgender issues. Scenes shared by Close and McTeer aren't without interest and tenderness, and their characters' Brokeback Mountain-style rapport gives your heart a wee tug, with Albert fascinated by, and envious of, a woman like her who's managed to find a way to live in relative personal contentment (Hubert, who also goes by her male name, has a home and a wife). But it isn't enough to generate true viewer investment in Albert's journey, nor are Albert's feelings in regard to gender and identity given enough clarity to allow one to fully grasp her motivations. Even for someone living in today's world of fluid sexuality, it's hard to nail down the implications of a scene in which Albert and Hubert step out in women's dresses, the obvious, illusion-boosting sleight of hand followed by a freeing run on a beach that sees a tremendous weight lifted from Albert's shoulders. Such feminine liberation seems out of step with what we come to learn of who Albert wants to be, and what she's feeling in that moment comes off as a mysterious muddle. "You don't have to be anything but who you are," Hubert assures Albert. Albert Nobbs, however, never tells us who that is.