There's a priceless moment in this odd film wherein a bearded, bearish Brendan Gleeson, playing an alcoholic physician, turns to his hotel's servant, the titular Nobbs, and utters the classic male complaint: "Women." The brief scene is a hoot because, unbeknownst to Dr. Holloran, the singular Mr. Nobbs is in reality Miss Nobbs, splendidly played with frantic reserve and permanently repressed panic by a remarkable Glenn Close. Would that the rest of the film were as droll as that single utterance. It isn't, and Albert Nobbs is the furthest thing from a comedy, although as a character study of cultural mores and stations and the lengths human beings will go to to circumvent them, it's fascinating stuff.
Co-scripted by Close, novelist John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop from a short story by George Moore, this highly closeted (in every way) film is set in Dublin, Ireland, in the late 19th century. Mr. Nobbs' situation is explained in terms that will be familiar to fans of Dustin Hoffman's underemployed, cross-dressing actor in Tootsie: Work is scarce, and work that pays a living wage even scarcer. Thus Nobbs the feminine becomes Nobbs the masculine: tight-lipped, wide-eyed, almost mannequinesque in the intensity of her/his charade. After having suffered through a miserable childhood and eventually having secured suitable employment in a Dublin hotel, Nobbs' daily routine is one of ongoing self-obliteration. Courting – if that's the word for it – Mia Wasikowska's servant girl Helen, Nobbs' story becomes downright tragic.
That overarching sense of sadness and extremely intimate – indeed, interior – loss is only underscored by the arrival of a painter, Hubert Page (McTeer), a jovial personage who is also, like Nobbs, a woman masquerading as a man. That Hubert should have what appears to be a far more enjoyable inner life is discomfiting to the fragile Nobbs' psyche, since Nobbs, whether upstairs or downstairs, is never truly comfortable in his/her own skin. Close's vanishing act is so deep as to be cellular, and the role is certainly a memorable one, even if Nobbs the character is less so. What the film may say to you about issues of gender, class, and identity depends entirely on what you bring to it. In the end, everything's a tragedy.