Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia has shown extraordinary attention to the lives of women, from his interconnected slices-of-life movies Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her to the smaller ensemble of Mother and Child. It was only a matter of time before he guided a terrific actress to the awards derby, as he does with Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, with a bonus Janet McTeer supporting nomination on the side. The trouble is, his work, at least so far, gets less interesting with greater focus; the new film, like Mother and Child, feels like a fine short story killing time at feature length.
Unlike Child, Nobbs actually comes from a short story, rather than an original Garcia screenplay; it was also an Off-Broadway play starring Close, who cowrote and coproduced this adaptation. As in the early 80s, she plays the title role: a reserved servant at a hotel in nineteenth century Ireland who happens also to be a woman. Albert ("such a kind little man," remarks one of his superiors) keeps to himself, scrimping and saving his tips, hoping to open a tobacco shop. He opens up a little to Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a fellow secret woman, gabbier and less meek, who serves as an entry point to explore Albert's motivations and backstory. Yet this character doesn't eliminate the script's need to include scenes where Nobbs talks to himself, explaining, say, how much more money he needs, when the movie can't figure out a better way to dramatize it.
Albert Nobbs is most intriguing in its first half, feeling out Albert's relationships—with Hubert, or with Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), the young maid he thinks maybe he can marry. The film adeptly illustrates how Albert and Hubert use deception to try out new, perhaps better-fitting identities—"disguised as [themselves]," as local doctor Brendan Gleeson notes off-handedly to Albert at a costume party. Close and McTeer are touching in their scenes together, and the movie makes quiet points about the economics of freedom—and, for that matter, of dating, when the pragmatic Nobbs must calculate how much money he stands to lose courting Helen.
But as pieces of plot fall into place, the movie's dramatic options begin to feel as limited as Albert's: a small assortment of predictable low-key tragedies. Ultimately, the movie opts for anticlimax. Close's work is no showboating stunt, but lacking a stronger point of view, it almost turns into one by default (as fine as she and McTeer are, I have to wonder if Academy voters actually sat down and watched the movie, or just saw not one but two women in dude drag and assumed it was a powerhouse). A wisp that nonetheless manages to run almost two hours, Albert Nobbs is exactly the kind of movie that will be remembered based on awards it does or doesn't win.