Glenn Close portrays a 19th-century butler in ‘Albert Nobbs’

YOU'D THINK a movie about a male impersonator who calls himself "Nobbs" would have more of a sense of humor.

Alas, "Albert Nobbs," featuring Oscar-nominated Glenn Close as a 19th-century Irish woman pretending to be a male butler, is determined to be an earnest tragedy, pleading for tears that never come.

So why the Oscar nomination? I suspect that part of the reason is that Close (also producer) worked doggedly and heroically for 30 years to bring this project to the screen - it's based on a stage play that she performed three decades ago and has been nurturing ever since.

Now it's finally here, with Close in the title role, playing a woman who poses as a man in order to protect herself in a world dominated - physically and economically - by men.

The wrinkle in "Nobbs" is that its subject is economic and social justice, not sexuality. Albert is the persona invented by a woman who finds practical advantages in manhood. She makes a better wage and is treated with more respect than the maids and kitchen workers who gossip at the kettle all day.

And when Albert starts to woo one of these girls (Mia Wasikowska), it's clear that "his" interest is not sexual - she's a fixture in a dream life that for Albert includes a little tobacco shop and a wife, the sort of dream available only to men. And not to many of those - Wasikowska is also wooed by a young Irishman who must go to the U.S. for a job and a future.

"Albert Nobbs" tries to build suspense around the possiblity of Albert being exposed. He's forced to take a roommate when the hotel hires a boisterous handyman (Janet McTeer) to paint the lobby.

When I first saw McTeer (also nominated for an Oscar), I didn't recognize her as the same actress who starred in "Tumbleweeds," but I knew right away she was a woman. If the movie wanted credibility, it should not have hired an actress with Jayne Mansfield's chest.

As for Close, she looks nothing like a man. Nor much like a woman. Pale, stiff, unblinking - she's like an androgynous ghost walking around in a bowler hat, like something out of a zombie version of "The Avengers."

Oh well, in the eyes of Oscar, it's the year of the domestic. "Albert Nobbs," "The Help." Which makes it even harder to explain why "Jane Eyre" was overlooked.

Albert Nobbs

Directed by Rodrigo García. With Bronagh Gallagher, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Glenn Close. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.

Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for some sexuality, brief nudity and language).