In Albert Nobbs, a classy but curiously loveless period drama, Glenn Close plays a woman disguised as a man, as was necessary to work at a Dublin hotel in the late 19th century. Dressed up in a monkey-suit, garbed in a bowler hat and yielding a curly handled umbrella, Close’s diminutive butler looked to me like a waxy-skinned, blue-eyed Charlie Chaplin. The actress even waddled with the charming squirt’s duck-like titubation.
The similarities aren’t exclusively physical. Like Chaplin’s famous alter ego, the Little Tramp, Albert often meanders into pleasant fantasy. After 20 years of loyal service and frugal financing, he can finally open the tobacco shop he’s always dreamt about. In his reveries—sequences lit to glow with a sense of fireside warmth—the place has two counters and a lovely backroom lounge. Trouble is: he needs someone to help him run the place. One night, Albert befriends a housepainter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) once the man accidentally discovers what Albert’s hiding under his coat and tie. Fortunately, Hubert’s also a woman masquerading as a gent, and later Albert’s shocked to learn that despite that, Hubert has somehow found a pretty wife to welcome him home.
This inspires the spacey butler to seek out his own blushing bride. However, the pickings at the hotel are rather slim. He decides to pursue Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a cute if promiscuous maid, basically because she’s the only one around. Helen’s got a hotheaded new beau, the off-the-street handyman John (Aaron Johnson), an illiterate brute with his dreams of his own—namely American dreams. To help bankroll the voyage, he convinces Helen to milk money and gifts out of the lonely Albert with false sentiment.
Though versatile (you may recognize him as the nerdy crime-fighter from Kick-Ass or the guy who played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy), Johnson comes off as a pussycat of an Irish bruiser, with neither the sexual puissance to entrap Helen nor the villainous malice needed to be threatening. Wasikowska, with her yellow locks and childlike features, is inherently likable as Helen, even if she does reluctantly go along with the ruse. Albert Nobbs is really a passion project for Glenn Close, who played the character on stage, co-wrote the screenplay with George Martin and the theme song, “Lay Your Head Down”, with Sinead O’Conner. Close plays Albert as timid, vulnerable, and confused, all the sympathetic traits of a small child; he’s such a delicate, light presence you could practically see through him.
That would all be okay, if not for the fact that Albert’s affection is as counterfeit as Helen’s. He’s not looking for a soul mate—he’s looking for an assistant, someone to sweep the floor and put out inventory. (Maybe that’s what love was during Victorian times, I couldn’t say). Under the surface, he needs a wife to help cement his identity—he’s lived so long with a lie that he’s lost all sense self-hood.
Though made with elegance and a keen feel for the time and place, Albert Nobbs grows into a cynical and strangely heartless affair. The problem remains with Albert; he makes for a disengaging and bewildering protagonist whose motivations feel entirely self-serving. Stories about love beyond gender barriers often elicit the purest and most heartfelt relationships, because they’re not just about sex, but connection. Albert Nobbs does not qualify, for its connections are phony ones. Close can channel Chaplin’s looks and mannerisms all she wants, but she’ll never capture his romantic spirit with such an avaricious heart.