Amidst the economic hardships and social prejudices of 19th century Dublin, unassuming butler, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) tries to eke out a living as a waiter in an upmarket hotel. Serving tea to the cream of Ireland’s landed gentry, Albert dreams of opening a tobacconist, while attempting to keep a lid on the fact that he is actually a she.
Albert’s plans to work his/her way into occupational and fiscal independence are complicated by the arrival at the hotel of Hubert (Janet McTeer), a painter who discovers Albert’s secret and alerts him/her to a hitherto unknown world of possibility.
By all accounts Albert Nobbs was a labour of love for Close who toiled for a number of years to bring the story to the big screen, and earlier this year she was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for her effort. One might be forgiven for thinking that nomination was more for the grim determination with which she dragged the contents of the novel, via the stage, onto the big screen, rather than for the grim, stoic determination with which her character serves dinner.
Alarmingly, Nobbs is a transvestite whose uptight nature and general lack of personality singularly fails to generate any interest, sympathy or emotion in himself/herself whatsoever. It’s also a performance which is massively overshadowed by Janet McTeer’s hard-yet-understanding husband.
Brendan Gleeson’s brief moments of humour bring some relief from the pretty relentless drudgery; and there’s just enough charm to be found in the first 45 minutes to maintain interest for the film’s opening act. But it’s a charm which evaporates far too quickly, leaving the film to trudge to a conclusion.
For a film which seeks to address the issue of unconventional or illicit sexual liaisons, Albert Nobbs is a surprisingly joyless, sexless affair.