ALBERT NOBBS: All façade, no film

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Starring Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy. 113 mins.
Rating: Two/Five
In cinemas April 27

A film that’s been thirty years in the making, Glenn Close originally starred in the stage adaptation of George Moore’s short story in 1982. But despite three decades of passion driving the project, Albert Nobbs – like its titular character – remains an undiscovered cipher, corseted by its fear to explore its real potential.

Instead it clumsily tramples over the award-baiting bases of period costumes, cross-dressing and a scene of beach-inspired self-discovery worthy of only the classiest of tampon-ads, all before heading for a tragedy-stricken homerun. But in its haste, it forgets to fill up the field with a dramatic arc, clear theme or empathetic central character.

Close plays Albert, a prim and introverted manservant in a nineteenth century Dublin hotel, who –as the marketing has revealed – is in fact a woman in disguise. After decades of deceiving everyone around him, he is discovered by gruff painter Hubert (Janet McTeer) – who, as the actress’ name would indicate, is also concealing a Twelfth Night-style secret.

For a concealed identity film where the stakes aren’t particularly high – the stigma and repercussions would be far greater were he a man living as a woman – Albert Nobbs needs to be an intriguing, emotional character study. Unfortunately, Nobbs remains decidedly unsympathetic. Too repressed to be empathetic, and too calculating to be truly sympathetic, the scriptwriters pay a disservice to their hero(ine?) by skipping over the tough questions. Albert’s harrowing teenage experiences are only briefly mentioned, drained of any power by sanitized euphemisms, while his sexual preference or desire is never mentioned.

In contrast, McTeer’s Hubert is a magnificent foil to Albert, almost dribbling with the joyous bite she has taken from her rounded, fulfilled and love-filled life. But even she has little impact of Albert’s choices, and so despite her warmth and exuberance, both the plot and character development feels remarkably flat, bordering on non-existent.

But, appropriately for a film that’s more a façade than a feature, the make-up is wonderful.