The gender-bending Albert Nobbs offers a buy-one-get-one-free coupon of butch, with two central heroines masquerading as dudes. The titular Albert (Glenn Close) is an awkward, finicky little man, while Albert’s inspiration, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), is strong and, well, normal.
Albert should, by all rights, be a sympathetic character. He’s damaged and frightened by the Dublin around him, desperately hanging on to his secret identity in a way that has stifled his ability to actually live. But poor Albert is so one-dimensional that the film surrounding him becomes a complete and utter drag. Hubert and his wife, Cathleen, are happy in their love that dare not speak its name, offering the picture its one and only example of either joy or sexuality. That’s odd for a movie that revolves around Albert’s attempt to marry a young woman.
Perhaps it’s the 42-year age difference between Close and Mia Wasikowska, who plays the object of Albert’s attentions, that makes the proposal seem overtly creepy, or perhaps it’s Albert’s complete lack of romantic affection. Whatever it is, watching Close and Wasikowska kiss is about the most asexual, uncomfortable thing to hit the screen since the ponytail-fucking in Avatar. Where Albert should arouse pity in viewers, he instead skeeves them out with his creepy plastic face and old-man perving on a young, naive girl.
That’s not to say Albert Nobbs isn’t watchable. Once past 20 minutes of dull 19th-century Dublin scene-setting, Nobbs picks up the pace, largely due to a fantastic performance from McTeer. But the movie suffers, much like Albert himself, from a fear of the transgressive. The secretive lives Albert and Hubert live aren’t cause for celebration, or even examination; they’re merely vehichles to drive a clunky plot chock-full of Victorian-era working-class stereotypes about men and women.
It seems strange that Close worked for 15 years to bring Albert Nobbs to the screen. Her passion for the film is less apparent from her performance than from her credits as screenwriter and producer (and the writer of an original song, “Lay Your Head Down,” that’s as bland as a Sarah McLachlan ballad). Albert Nobbs is an obvious award-baiting film for Close, and while it has received a handful of nominations, it’s utterly forgettable as a flick, lacking either the drama to make it great or the camp to make it a joy. R.
40 SEE IT: Opens Friday at Fox Tower and City Center.