Have you ever wanted to see a movie that could have been inspired by the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"? No? Well, Paul McCartney's ditty about the world's barely-there wallflowers may come to mind early and often in Albert Nobbs, in which Glenn Close plays the 19th-century Dublin hotel servant of the title.
Close is a woman, of course, and Albert Nobbs is a nonentity with a traumatic, largely suppressed past who has survived for three decades dressed as, and working as, a man. Nobbs has no modern self-identity as transgendered or lesbian (thus making it difficult to settle on a masculine or feminine pronoun in discussing the film), but he has succeeded in the ruse while working his job at an upscale but corrupt hotel. We accompany Albert through his sad, tedious days, at the end of which he counts out his wages and hides them under the floorboards. His dream is to open a tobacconist's shop, while the promise of love and a future flickers as Albert haltingly pursues a young hotel maid (Mia Wasikowska), with the idea of finding a domestic partner but with no understanding of his sexual feelings.
The sociology of the times, along with a cast of familiar transient types (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker and others), is dutifully accounted for, but there's no saving the deadly story, as sad and sensitive as it is. Despite the intriguing subject of non-normative domestic relations in the olden days, Albert Nobbs comes off as a vanity project for Close, who had a notable pre-film career success Off-Broadway with this role. Here, though, the adaptation fails to interest us in this non-personality, beyond the feat Close performs in acting it.
The film, which is directed by Rodrigo García (who has done energetic work elsewhere, including Nine Lives with Close), does kick off a few sparks with the arrival of Hubert Page (played by the redoubtable Janet McTeer), a tall, swaggering lesbian who passes as a male painting contractor while supporting her wife in a tableau of domestic bliss that poor Albert glimpses only briefly. But it's sadness and stultification elsewhere.