The key to this very tricky, very earnest period piece is a balance between elegant pacing and spot-on acting. You could say that about any movie, basically, except that often when actors and pacing are out of balance (and they’re often very out of balance), it’s because a movie has no pretension toward making sense, and there you go: just sit back and stop thinking and watch Transformers beat the fuck out of each other. But when a movie asks us to look back more than a hundred years, to another country, to a fictional story about a woman dressed up as a man, who isn’t doing it for sexual gratification, but rather out of necessity, and then asks us to really care, plausibility is the greatest factor counting towards the movie’s success.
Give most people the above outline — the story of Albert Nobbs — and you get a laugh. It sounds more like a Shakespearean sex comedy than a dour look at the travails of the peasant class in Yeats’ Ireland, and in the face of this, director Rodrigo García (Mother and Child) does his tasteful best to maintain plausibility. He leaves it to his art and costume directors to class up the plot, which centers around the titular Nobbs’ life in a small, posh Dublin hotel around 1898, while he focuses on weaving characters together as simply as possible. With a transvestite in the hotel, the main thing is to avoid caricature. When García fails, or rather, when the weight of the woman-as-a-man plot overcomes his ability to keep everything in balance, then it’s up to Glenn Close to carry the movie through.
Thirty years ago, Close read the short story on which the movie’s based; a few years back, she helped adapt the story into a screenplay, then she found it financing, and now she’s played the title role. That she did all of this work proves at the very least that she’s trying to get it right, and her performance reinforces the proof. Close’s Nobbs barely speaks — when she does, it’s in a strained Irish brogue that seems desperate to sound mannish — and appears to view the world entirely through a haze of bug-eyed surprise and stultifying caution. Nobbs is a shut-in in her own mind, so the movie succeeds when it focuses on her, when it watches Close act — in fact, García’s camera strays from Close’s face at its own peril.
The movie ultimately fails despite her performance, and it fails simply: nothing is nearly as compelling as the face of Nobbs. Everything in the hotel where Nobbs serves is designed to fuel her predicament — the cold-hearted proprietress (Pauline Collins), the warm-hearted doctor (Brendan Gleeson), the facile young maid (Mia Wasikowska), the priapic new handyman (Aaron Johnson) — yet none have a life of their own, and none do their job, illuminating Nobbs’ struggle, half so well as Close’s face. There is a lot of dressing to surround the impressive central performance, and Close manages to convey a lot of heartbreak and longing from within her hermetic physicality, but nothing else feels of much consequence. When a typhoid outbreak that kills 10% of Dublin is used to shore up Nobbs’ personal problems, it may be a little too obvious that the movie doesn’t have its priorities straight.