In this film image released by Roadside Attractions, Glenn Close is shown in a scene from "Albert Nobbs." (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Patrick Redmond)
2 out of 4 Stars
No disrespect intended but if there was ever an actress whose facial features made it easy for her to convincingly play a male character, it's Glenn Close. She must surely feel somewhat the same way because she's been attached in some form or fashion to "Albert Nobbs" for 30 years.
Having first played the title character -- a woman pretending to be a man -- in a 1982 stage play version, Close has been trying to get the movie made ever since. After watching it, it's easy to see why it took so long to make it to the screen. Fragile, brittle and brimming with misplaced, awards-seeking sincerity, "Albert Nobbs" is a wisp of movie that is utterly unconvincing with its execution and surprisingly tentative with its approach.
With set/costume designs, dialogue, lighting and a backing score that could fit quite comfortably on any "Masterpiece Theater" production, "Nobbs" has two distinct yet polar opposite demographics. There are the blue-hair/PBS viewers and ... the LGBT crowd. Together, these groups make up a significant chunk of regular art-house patrons and that could help it snag some attention, but the producers (one of whom is Close) want critical support and as of now that is mostly absent.
Something else that is also absent is a clear cut reason as to why Nobbs is pretending to be a man. The more believable of the two -- which won't be revealed here but is late in the second act -- makes more sense and hits a much stronger emotional chord. It also will be more relatable to modern day targets of gay/lesbian prejudice. It's touched on once and left to twist in the wind.
As related by Nobbs, he/she is doing all this because women in 19th century Ireland are essentially prohibited from being businesspeople. That's very plausible; the feminine glass ceiling has been around for a while and Nobbs is working to become self-employed, pence by meager pence. In the meantime, she's working as a waiter in a high-end hotel.
Lending Nobbs' principal reason significant credence comes in the form of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a freelance painter hired by the hotel who through a too convenient plot insertion temporarily shares quarters with Nobbs. A tall woman with significantly more curves than Close, McTeer is also far more convincing as a man and when in make-up and costume bears an uncanny resemblance to k.d. lang. The Page character also lives a private life that will be highly relatable to alternative-lifestyle audiences.
Up until this point, the story is not real special but does show promise but all of that is wiped out when Nobbs' attention starts to lose focus with her professional quest and she starts pursuing matters of the heart that stand no chance of succeeding. The film goes from being a quasi-bravado statement on gender and quickly morphs into a hackneyed, period-piece daytime soap opera.
The Nobbs character risks everything she's been striving for forever for something that even the largely dim supporting players know could never happen. Initially sympathetic and complex, the second half of the film finds Nobbs making some very stupid choices that don't at all fit in with what we saw at the beginning.
Aiding Nobbs in the stupid department are the otherwise fine young adult actors Aaron Johnson ("Kick Ass," "Nowhere Boy") and Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland," "Jane Eyre") who play low-rung employees at the hotel. In what feels like mere minutes, each goes from being amiable to loathsome and tries to pull off a crime that is beyond dumb and obvious.
Opening three days after both Close and McTeer received Oscar nominations for their performances should get a better than expected boost, but that will be mostly from their respective fan bases that were probably going to see it anyway. (Roadside Attractions)