Dude looks like a lady
In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays a man (it is likely you know this if you've heard anything about the movie, because it is the only thing that the marketing really cares to mention). More precisely, she plays a woman posing as a man in 19th Century Ireland for economic purposes - she wants to open a tobacconist's shop, and that would take more than a lifetime's worth of saved wages for a single woman - but she's been at it for so long that whatever is left of her female identity has been effectively eradicated. "What is your name?" she is asked by someone who knows her secret. "Albert Nobbs," she says. "No, your real name." Close responds to this with the look of a hunted animal staring down a hungry wolf for a few seconds, before saying "Albert Nobbs". So let's leave it at: Glenn Close plays a man. She is convincing as hell, aided by some very good makeup and a really uncanny thing she does with her voice.
Secondly, in Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays a man who is tremendously shy and reserved and given to very little openness and has in every way done such a good job of burying everything about his personality and hopes and fears, that there is, in a very real sense, no personality left; just the "Albert Nobbs" costume that this self-negating, genderless person wears as armor against everyone else in the world. Close plays this man very well, which means that she does an exemplary job of giving a surface-level performance, which is the kind of praise that no matter how generously it is meant, just won't come out sounding like a compliment.
Here, then, is the problem with Albert Nobbs: it is a movie about Glenn Close playing a man who has no inner life, and no matter how good it might be at this goal, the results are de facto not going to be very engaging, because there's only so much you can do with a character who is by design not interesting and has nothing to say, without turning out a movie that is also not interesting and has nothing to say. And certainly not with Rodrigo García directing: although he's hitched his wagon to quite a few excellent TV series, his feature films (Passengers and Mother and Child) are notable mostly for how much they are not compelling character studies.
Making things even worse, this is a huge passion project for Close, who produces, co-writes, and even co-wrote (with Brian Byrne) the Sinéad O'Connor song over the closing credits, all so she could get the part that she played on stage all the way back in 1982 to film audiences. It is a story she evidently believes in with all her being, and that ends up meaning that she is so absolutely certain that Albert Nobbs is a fantastic character and his drama an outstanding narrative, that all she has to do is give Nobbs life and the rest will follow. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and my notion is that it might have been a good thing to do something, anything at all, interesting with the part, and not just be the most convincing empty husk of a man she could be.
Since Albert Nobbs, as it is currently assembled, doesn't care about anything else besides Albert Nobbs and, especially, foregrounding Close's performance of him, the whole movie really wasn't going to survive that particular flaw; the result is a quintessential awards-season prestige costume drama that goes nowhere and does nothing, not even when it tosses in a hugely superfluous subplot with Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a maid at the hotel where Albert works as head of staff, and her affair with Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson), a dashing rapscallion plumber. Eventually this intersects with the main plot (if it's fair to call "man who is really a woman in drag is full of self-doubt" by the noble name "plot") in a way that seems pointedly calculated to make every single character in the movie less interesting and likable, not that "likable" is any kind of prerequisite for a good movie, but if the only other choices are "boring" and "grating", it would have been a welcome change.
The one and only bright side to all of this- actually, that's not fair. There are two bright sides, one of which is the physical production of the movie - production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein, costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud - which is the absolute best kind of eye candy if you are even marginally a fan of 19th Century period dramas, as I hope and pray we all are. But there's an even better bright side, which is Janet McTeer's performance as Hubert Page, the brusque painter hired at the hotel and obliged to bunk with Albert. Given that McTeer doesn't even have a gender-neutral first name like "Glenn", it's no real surprise that Hubert also turns out to be a woman dressed as a man for primarily economic reasons. Unlike Close, McTeer doesn't convince as a man very much, but it simply doesn't matter, because she plays Hubert to perfection, where all of Close's exceptional physicality can't make Albert seem like anything else but a fictional character. McTeer steams through the movie like a mad bull, devouring scenes and co-stars whole, greedily stealing every moment - just like the crude, graceless Hubert might do - and generally making Albert Nobbs absolutely thrilling stuff whenever she's on-screen.
Perversely, it's the kind of "one good performance" that throws everything else into relief and makes the whole rest of the movie that much harder to appreciate; if it could get that one character and all of his trappings so absolutely right, why couldn't it get anything else right? Why not ask questions about gender, or sexuality, or economic status, or identity, all of which are right there at the very surface of the material, begging to be exploded all over the place (there's one scene that actually does kind of get at some of this, involving women's clothes and a run on the beach, and it's so much better than anything else in the movie that it hurts)? Why not tell a rich and weird story, rather than just grind through the bland intrigues of the second half, and the blander lack of anything even a little bit like intrigue in the first? I wonder if, at some point, Close lost sight of the prize; if there came a time when making Albert Nobbs became so important that the reasons for making Albert Nobbs had been forgotten. My congratulations on her accomplishment, but a worthwhile movie would have been even better still.