Albert Nobbs (the main character in a movie of the same name) has a pretty ironic name. In the United Kingdom, the word “nob” is slang for penis, but Albert doesn’t have one. That’s because he’s not really a “he” at all, even if he has lived that way for most of his life. Albert (or whatever her name was as a child) was abandoned as a baby and had been adopted by Mrs. Nobbs. It was a good, if modest, upbringing and Albert lived as a girl (which she was) until Mrs. Nobbs died leaving Albert alone again. Needing a way to support herself, she saw an advertisement for a butler and was able to get the job while posing as a young man. The career stuck, and Albert would continue to masquerade as a man even switching employers several times. In his current job, Albert (played by Glenn Close) buttles in an upscale Dublin inn catering to well-to-do patrons who are often quite rude and self-important but nevertheless seem to like Albert. He’s been saving his tips for years and has built up a decent nest egg, but doesn’t really have anything to spend it on.
One day, the inn’s owner Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) hires Hubert Page to paint some of the rooms. It’s going to be a multi-day job, and Mrs. Baker offers to let Hubert stay at the inn until it’s done. Unfortunately, all the rooms are taken so she has Hubert share Albert’s room. Albert is understandably nervous about having his cover blown, but is completely shocked to learn that Hubert (played by Janet McTeer) shares exactly the same secret, and in fact is in even deeper cover because s/he has a wife, Cathleen (who is actually a woman, played by Bronagh Gallagher) at home. Albert is intrigued by this possibility, and has his eye on Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who works as one of the maids at the inn.
Albert Nobbs is certainly not the first gender-bending movie, although it is the first I’ve seen to take place as a period piece. It’s also by far the least convincing performance of any in this class of films. At no point in the film does Glenn Close look anything like a man, and in fact the first time I saw the trailer I didn’t realize she was supposed to be playing a man until about halfway through. Janet McTeer’s disguise wasn’t much better, and it eliminates any possibility of surprise on the part of the audience when Albert learns Hubert’s secret. It’s certainly not in the same league as Boys Don’t Cry or even Just One of the Guys, but perhaps it’s about as convincing as Victor/Victoria (in which Julie Andrews plays a cross-dressing man).
Even if we ignore the unconvincing portrayals, it’s still a very disappointing movie. There are other kinds of believability issues, like why Albert continued to live as a man into his adult years after changing jobs, and the extremely unlikely nature of how Albert and Hubert met each other. It’s also incredibly boring, even compared with other period films, and the end is very unsatisfying. I’m not sure if it’s a movie by idiots or for idiots, but it’s definitely not for me.