Albert Nobbs is the type of movie that's probably most useful to the hordes of bigots that circled Chick-fil-As in "protest" a few weeks ago. It's a simple story with an easily digestible message at its core -- the type that might be able to open up a narrow mind.
The titular character is played by Glenn Close, who was nominated for Best Actress for her turn in this role. Nobbs is working as a hotel waiter, a job that is difficult to come by and reserved solely for men in late-19th century Dublin, where the film is set. Nobbs gets around these inconveniences by inconveniencing himself -- squeezing into undergarments that diminish his feminine attributes, deepening his voice, living a mostly solitary existence to conceal a secret that, if exposed, would ruin him.
Nobbs enjoys a near sterling reputation as a waiter and has the savings to match that reputation squirreled away. He dreams of taking his hard-earned money and opening a shop of his own, a dream that seems not too far away from being realized judging by the stacks of coins under a floorboard in his quarters at the hotel. The shop fantasy becomes more complex when, by pure chance, Nobbs runs across another cross-dressing laborer -- house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer).
Page learns Nobbs' secret after spending the night in the hotel, and quickly becomes the lone confidant of the waiter. Nobbs has someone to talk to at long last, yes, but he has something to aspire to as well; Page has a wife, Cathleen (Bronagh Gallager), at home. Once Nobbs learns of Page's domestic situation you can see the wheels begin to spin. So he sets his sights on Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a maid at the hotel who is already involved with scheming repairman Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson).
Suddenly, in the fantasy it's not just Albert's Tobacco Shop, but Albert and Helen's Tobacco Shop. In this case, hopeful daydreams lead only to deep, searing pain. Helen is too interested in the scampish Joe to pay Albert any mind, and even if she weren't Albert hasn't made the mental leap from wooing Helen to revealing his secret to her, one which would, of course, be exposed if they were to get married.
I wish I could say simple rejection and isolation were the ultimate end for Albert, but sadly an even more unjust fate awaits him. I also wish it hadn't taken quite so long to learn what that fate was. George Moore's novella The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs provided the source material here, and it was painfully obvious that this was a short story stretched to feature length. Nobbs and Page are far and away the most interesting characters here because, well, of course they are. They're woman masquerading as men in 19th century Ireland! To sustain the plot over nearly two hours there needed to be either much more of the Nobbs-Page relationship or stronger, more compelling performances from Wasikowska and Johnson, two young actors whom I like, but were either flat or not given much to work with, or both.
Albert Nobbs has plenty to say about sexism, the depression of total isolation and the deep cost of concealing a fundamental part of who you are. Unfortunately, it doesn't have enough momentum to be interesting as it ponders those themes. This should be required viewing for anyone who thinks people should stifle harmless parts of their nature just to conform with societal norms. For those of us already on that page, though, there's no need to sit through all of this film.