Given its title, and the film's premise - a woman masquerading as a man in late 19th century Ireland - you could be forgiven for thinking that Albert Nobbs is a sex farce. It is not. But then, Rodrigo Garcia's film, from a screenplay co-penned by leading lady Glenn Close, can't decide if it's a genteel comedy of manners or a tragic drama; swaying between the two and never succeeding as either.
Albert (Close) has been masquerading as man since being abandoned as an adolescent. Donning male drag was the best way for a young, unmarried woman to survive and she has successfully done so for thirty years; finding steady employment as a butler in a Dublin hotel operated by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins).
But then one day, into the hotel and Albert's life comes another crossdresser, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Tall, talkative and confident, Hubert is everything the quiet, buttoned down Albert is not. And the butler is intrigued by Hubert's ability to not only pass as a man but to conduct a full and normal life, with his own painting business and a wife and home.
This inspires Albert to believe that she may achieve the same. Having saved enough money to put a deposit on a shop, Albert decides she must also have a wife and sets her sights on the hotel's young maid, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). Unaware of her savings or her secret, Helen and her boyfriend, Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson), set about exploiting Albert's interest in the lass, setting in motion an inevitable tragedy.
There is no denying there is an interesting subject at the heart of Albert Nobbs - that of women passing as men in order to survive in a man's world, one which didn't look too kindly on unattached women - but what little examination the film does is diluted by competing and unnecessary sub plots.
Albert Nobbs has been a passion project of Glenn Close's since she performed a stage version of George Moore's original short story in the early 1980s. But in writing the screenplay (with John Bannville), Close seems to have forgotten that the audience hasn't spent as long with, or inside the head of, Albert Nobbs as she has.
And as fine as Close's performance is (she makes for a suitably odd looking man, with a more than eerie resemblance to Robin Williams's robot in Bicentennial Man), there is too little revealed of Albert's inner life, her thoughts and feelings. Does Albert want to marry Helen as a means to an end or does she really love her? And if so, what does this reveal of Albert's sexuality? Presumably Albert hasn't had sexual relations since first deciding to "become" a man.
Addressing these questions, which Garcia touches upon when we visit the home of Hubert and his wife, would have made Albert Nobbs a far more intriguing and satisfying film. As it is, it remains a curiosity and little more than a "woman in male drag" novelty which I'm sure wasn't the 30-year intention of Ms. Close.