Albert Nobbs

ALBERT NOBBS. Starring Glen Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Rated M (Coarse language, sex scene and brief nudity). 108 minutes.

For her performance as a cross-dressing waiter in Albert Nobbs, Glen Close may come perilously close at this year’s Oscars, to pipping at the post fellow contender Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady).

Both actors are at the peak of illustrious careers, and both women, now in their 60s, impersonate characters who look, sound, and behave in ways utterly atypical of themselves (as far as we know). But for all the miracle of Streep’s transformation into Margaret Thatcher, it is Glen Close who perhaps moves and persuades us most.

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child), Albert Nobbs is based on the short story The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, written by Irish novelist George Moore in 1922. In this story, published in a collection of stories entitled Celibate Lives, Albert Nobbs is a woman disguised as a man who avoids poverty in Ireland in the 1890s by working as a butler in one of the Dublin’s most luxurious hotels.

Morrison’s is the favourite haunt of well-to-do families and aristocratic libertines such as Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who enjoys twosomes (and sometimes threesomes) in the hotel’s sumptuous bedrooms after dinner.  Run with flair by the proprietor Mrs Baker (Pauline Collins), the staff is solicitous and discreet, but none more so than Nobbs, an exemplary waiter and unassuming little man, who nurses two secrets: his gender and a dream of owning his own tobacco shop.

Catastrophe strikes when the hotel is forced to close temporarily. But not before Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) uncovers Nobb’s secret identity, and the timid man, like a pupa dreaming of becoming a butterfly, begins to emerge from his self-created cocoon.

Simone Benmussa adapted The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs to the New York stage in 1982, with Close playing Nobbs. Since then Close has nurtured her own dream of bringing Nobbs to the screen, which as actor, co-writer and the film’s producer she has done at last with pathos and great skill.

Albert Nobbs is an impoverished woman living in a man’s world who like others in her day, as the film and Moore’s story suggest, is forced to conceal her gender in order to survive. Nobbs is a mystery to herself and others. Who she was in the past or might have been, can never really be known, although in one poignant scene we catch a glimpse via a photograph of the mother she never knew.

In one powerful, bewildering, heart-breaking scene, Nobbs dons a dress and runs for a moment free, until the closet closes upon him forever. In this scene, and others with Janet McTeer as the house painter Hubert, a woman who accepts her role-playing and the love that comes with it, one is reminded of the forceful role played by society in influencing the way we construct our sexual identity.

Close’s transformation into the sad, asexual, mysterious Nobbs is a tour de force accomplished with minimal make-up and a lowering of the voice. And this is matched by the impeccable supporting cast: Collins (Shirley Valentine) as Mrs Baker, Mia Wasikowska (Restless, Jane Eyre) as the maid, Helen, who becomes the object of Nobbs’ fantasy, Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) as the hotel’s resident Doctor Halloran, Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy) as Helen’s boyfriend Joe, and a scarcely recognisable Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) as Polly the cook.

Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Hopscotch.

Out December 26 2011.