There's a bit of Downton Abbey about Albert Nobbs: The staff of a late-19th-century Dublin hotel scurry and fuss, catering to the well-to-dos in the salon, the restaurant, and the rooms upstairs. There is drama, romance, some thievery and deception, and the strict demarcations of class and gender are everywhere - as are the tortured souls fighting to escape them.
But unlike the sprawling ensemble of PBS's hit series, Albert Nobbs' focus is on one man - or, more to the point, one woman who has been passing herself off as a man. Mr. Nobbs - a compelling, compassionate, and just-announced Oscar-nominated turn from Glenn Close - is a butler in the hotel, a slight creature of late middle age who nods obsequiously and keeps a deep, dark secret locked inside.
Adapted from a short story (by George Moore) and a play (by Simone Benmussa, in which Close starred 30 years ago), Albert Nobbs offers a surprisingly moving portrait of this repressed and damaged person. It would have been difficult for Nobbs, with neither family nor friends, to have gotten by as a woman in the Ireland of the times, and so he has found a home, and a respectable living, serving claret and fine cuisine to viscounts and ladies, doctors and artistes.
Brendan Gleeson, Phyllida Law, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are among the patrons who consider Nobbs a good man. Pauline Collins is the hotel's proprietress. And downstairs, Brenda Fricker runs the kitchen, Maria Doyle Kennedy is a chambermaid carrying on with one of the hotel's regulars, and Mia Wasikowska is Helen, a young maid whom Nobbs, rather delusionally and tragically, begins to court.
Helen is encouraged to lead her unlikely suitor on by a shifty newcomer to the staff, Joe (Aaron Johnson), who has his own amorous designs on the pretty Helen.
And then there is Hubert, the house painter played with big, barmy charm by Janet McTeer (nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for her work). McTeer's character, like Close's, has sexual-identity issues - but instead of the fearful unhappiness of Nobbs, Hubert has come to terms with her clandestine situation. The relationship between these two closeted, but otherwise altogether dissimilar, people is at the heart of the tale, and Close and McTeer are wonderful together.
Albert Nobbs is a quiet, minor-key work. The period finery is Masterpiece Classics-y, the parade of upper-crust and lower-tier eccentrics predictable. But Close's performance as this poor, wounded fellow resonates with depth and poignancy.