There's a priceless moment in Albert Nobbs in which an alcoholic physician turns to his hotel's servant, the titular Nobbs, and utters the classic male complaint: "Women." The brief scene is a hoot because, unbeknown to the doctor, the singular Mr. Nobbs is in reality Miss Nobbs, played with permanently repressed panic by a remarkable Glenn Close.
If only the rest of the film were as droll as that utterance. It isn't, although Albert Nobbs is fascinating as a study of cultural mores and the lengths human beings will go to circumvent them.
Co-scripted by Close, the novelist John Banville and Gabriella Prekop from a short story by George Moore, the film is set in Dublin in the late 19th century. Mr. Nobbs' situation is explained in terms that will be familiar to fans of Dustin Hoffman's underemployed, cross-dressing actor in Tootsie: Work is scarce, and work that pays a living wage even scarcer.
Thus Nobbs the feminine becomes Nobbs the masculine: tight-lipped, wide-eyed, almost mannequin-esque in the intensity of her/his charade. After having suffered through a miserable childhood and secured suitable employment in a Dublin hotel, Nobbs engages in self-obliteration on a daily basis. Courting - if that's the word for it - Mia Wasikowska's servant girl Helen, Nobbs becomes downright tragic.
That overarching sense of sadness is only underscored by the arrival of a painter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a jovial personage who is also, like Nobbs, a woman masquerading as a man. Hubert appears to have a far more enjoyable inner life, and that's discomfiting to the fragile Nobbs, who is never comfortable in his/her own skin.
Close's vanishing act is memorable, even if Nobbs the character is less so.