Albert Nobbs (Roadside Attractions, R)

albert-nobbs smWhen she shares the screen with McTeer, Close simply disappears into the woodwork, which may be appropriate for her character but doesn’t give the audience much to appreciate.

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There have been some celebrated instances of women passing as men, from the colonial soldier Deborah Sampson to the 20th century musician Billy Tipton. Still, there must have been many more women who played their adopted roles so convincingly that their secret was never revealed, at least not while they lived.

That premise is the basis for George Moore’s short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” now adapted as the film Albert Nobbs. Bringing Albert Nobbs to the silver screen has been a labor of love for Glenn Close, who starred as the title character in a stage production in 1982 and spent almost 30 years trying to get a film version made. Besides acting in the film, she co-wrote the screenplay and was one of several producers. You have to admire that kind of persistence, and while the film itself is interesting but not great, it features a performance in one of the supporting roles that is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Albert Nobbs is a woman passing as a man in 19th-century Dublin. Her life story is mentioned only briefly, but you don’t have to think very hard to see the appeal of the deception: Albert could earn much more as a hotel waiter than in any job open to her as a woman, and as a man she also had a freedom of movement (including freedom from the threat of sexual attack) that was simply not available to contemporary women.

Albert pays a price for her choice. She’s an extremely withdrawn, carefully correct character who seems to have no life other than her work. Her single pleasure is totting up her savings, carefully secreted under the floorboards of her tiny room; her goal is to accumulate enough to buy a tobacco shop and go into business for herself. Still, she knows that life could be much, much worse, and thus she’s content to go on living this sort of half-life.

Then along comes another woman passing as a man, one whose bold approach to life gives Albert a sense of what she’s been missing. That character is Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter hired to do some work in the hotel where Albert works and also to room with her, to the latter’s great consternation. And no, I’m not spoiling anything, because neither Close nor McTeer really look much like men (although they might well have passed in a less suspicious age).

I’ve been a great admirer of McTeer ever since I saw her play Nora in a production of A Doll’s House (a West End transfer which came Broadway in 1997, to great acclaim). Her interpretation of Nora was different from any I’ve seen before or since, and it erased the uneasy feeling which often emanates from productions of Ibsen, that sense that you’re seeing a play that was important in its day (1879) but that just doesn’t cut it today. McTeer played Nora with great energy, as a woman disguising her essential nature with a variety of (often annoying) mannerisms, which she gradually cast off as her character became aware of her true self.

I mention this stage performance because Hubert and Albert are living in a world not dissimilar to that of Nora, and you could look at all three of their lives as being different solutions to the same problem of how to live in a world that has no place for you. McTeer steals the show with an exuberant performance as a woman who has taken her deception all the way. Her personality suggests that of a tomboy who decided it wasn’t just a stage, and she supports a wife and a comfortable, if modest, home through her labors. When she shares the screen with McTeer, Close simply disappears into the woodwork, which may be appropriate for her character but doesn’t give the audience much to appreciate.

Awakening long-repressed desires can be dangerous, particularly for someone for whom self-denial has been a long-term survival strategy. Albert begins courting a flirtatious young maid (Mia Wasikowska) who is also going out with a man much closer to her own age (Aaron Johnson). While it’s painful to watch the inevitable scenario unfold, you also feel that any happiness Albert can snatch from life is more than it really wants to grant her.

Albert Nobbs, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, maintains a sedate, almost starchy, facade, but you never lose sight of the violence and horror as lurking just below the proper surface of Victorian society. Costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud and production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein establish a strong period feel, and several performances in minor roles, including Pauline Collins as the hotel’s owner and Brendan Gleeson as a somewhat disreputable patron, add to pleasures of this modest, yet thought-provoking film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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