As Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close has hair that's cropped and orangey, and a voice that rarely rises above a nasal croak. She lives and works as a waiter in a high-toned hotel, where she stands with lips pressed together, tight yet tremulous, her searching eyes her only naturally moving parts. She resembles no man I've seen, but no woman, either. She's the personification of fear -- fear of being discovered to be a woman. Because hers is a society that treats all poor people badly, but poor women worse.
Albert Nobbs is based on a story published in 1918 by George Moore, an Irishman with a keen empathy for women who find refuge with one another. You watch this strange creature and wonder: How and why did she become Albert? The answer comes when Albert relays his life story to a house painter named Hubert Page, played by Janet McTeer; Hubert, too, was born a woman, but left her husband and made a similar choice to live as a man.
But unlike Albert, Hubert is not alone and desolate. He has a blissful domestic existence with a petite dressmaker -- and with that inspiration, Albert dares to dream of opening a tobacco shop and living with a pert blond housemaid, Helen, played by Mia Wasikowska, whom Albert finally summons the courage to approach and ask out on a walk.
And they do indeed "walk out" together, if only after Helen's lover, Joe, encourages her. He might have money, says Joe, who wants to move to America. Albert's dates with Helen are so ludicrous and awkward that they're heartbreaking.
The question arises: Is Albert Nobbs a "gay film"? I don't think sex enters into this particular equation. For Albert, women are simply safer than men. His longing is for coziness and affection.
Close played Albert onstage in the early '80s, after her star-making turn in The World According to Garp, and she's been working for decades to repeat the role onscreen. It's a pity it took so long, because an Albert in his 30s is different from one in his mid-60s.
Here, the impediment to a match between Albert and Helen has more to do with the difference in their age; a fantasy that might have been unlikely but appealing now seems thunderously delusional.
But Close is still very fine, and director Rodrigo Garcia creates a stark, judgmental world for her to inhabit. He avoids close-ups: You only see people in the context of their oppressive milieu. Only the hotel's resident doctor (Brendan Gleeson), an alcoholic who might have stepped out of a Chekhov drama, shows compassion -- but he has no idea who Albert is until it's too late.
McTeer nearly walks off with Albert Nobbs -- or, rather, swaggers off with it, in a performance both forthright and lightly ironic. She bears a strong resemblance to Rachel Maddow, so I half expected Hubert to hold forth eloquently on the historic injustices against women.
But Hubert doesn't make waves -- he likes where he is too much. Watching McTeer's marvelous performance, I had a sense that she also enjoyed the freedom of acting like a middle-aged man in a profession where middle-aged women are routinely discriminated against. In that regard, today's acting profession isn't so different from Albert Nobbs' Dublin. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.