Film review: Albert Nobbs (15)

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THIS is a wistful parable about identity, co-written by Glenn Close, Gabriella Prekop and the Irish novelist John Banville.

Albert Nobbs is a hotel waiter of such unobtrusive discretion that he barely registers until he is forced to share his bed one night with a housepainter called Hubert and a hungry flea. Albert Nobbs is revealed to be Albert Nobbless, a woman who has been passing herself off as a man since she was 14.

However, Hubert is barely astonished, since he’s a woman too (Janet McTeer). It sounds like the beginning of a Pythonesque comedy, but Albert Nobbs has something more psychological and plangent in mind. Albert may not be constrained by the expectations and limitations of being a woman in 19th century Ireland, but in order to live undetected, she has barely lived at all.

Hubert embodies heartier options: she has a trade, flirts with the help and is happily married to a seamstress (Bronagh Gallagher). Albert is so taken with Hubert’s domestic bliss that he resolves to find a wife too, but disastrously decides on Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a chambermaid who is already embroiled with a hardboiled handyman (Aaron Johnson), who encourages her to start seeing Albert anyway, scenting cash possibilities.

The dates are awful, of course, because Helen wants ardour and kisses, while Albert yearns for affection and afternoon tea. In this the film nicely intuits that Albert probably isn’t gay; it’s more a case of preferring women because past experiences suggest that they are a lot safer than men.

Close has been trying to get this project off the ground for 30 years, and this is one of the stumbling blocks; the film may have been made too late. Now that Close is 60, Helen is being importuned not only by someone socially awkward but also twice her age, making Albert not only weird, but old and weird.

The movie also over-elaborates the point that Albert has missed out on the gristle of living out loud, by surrounding her with more turbulent personalities. They include the grasping hotel owner (Pauline Collins) who grants special bed and board privileges to her star lodger, thirsty Dr Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), and guests such as Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ louche aristocrat, who is none-too-discreet about his naked male friend in an adjoining bedroom.

This is wildly colourful, but it tends to drain Close’s character of interest. Aside from a sequence where Albert and Hubert awkwardly take to the street in dresses for the first time in years, it’s also oddly humourless..

This is a sad, sweet little film; well acted, and capable of striking a universal chord. After all, who doesn’t use some level of impersonation in order to get by? Unfortunately, like Albert, this drama lacks balls.

Director: Rodrigo García

Running time: 113 minutes

Rating: ***

• Filmhouse, Edinburgh, and Glasgow Film Theatre from Friday; Dundee Contemporary Arts from 4 May