It's an awards-season cliche, but somewhat true, that if you're an actor wanting an Oscar, it helps if you play a character with some sort of handicap or disease. In "Albert Nobbs," Glenn Close follows another Oscar truism: Playing a character who's very different than yourself (especially if that can be aided by makeup) is usually a good move. Which is why most people put Close on the Best Actress shortlist before even seeing this period drama directed by Rodrigo Garcia. She's playing a man? That's acting!
The film, based on a George Moore short story that was later turned into a play, has been a passion project of Close's for almost 30 years. (She won an Obie playing the title role in the play back in the early '80s, and she co-wrote the film's screenplay.) "Albert Nobbs" tells the story of Mr. Nobbs (Close), a butler working in a posh late-19th century Dublin hotel. Nobbs is actually a woman who has disguised her gender so she can earn a man's wages. Dreaming of saving enough to start her own tobacco store, Nobbs tries to preserve her secret while pining for a younger maid (Mia Wasikowska).
Judging the performance strictly from a cynical, Oscar-observing perspective, Close has several pluses working for her. She's in makeup and prosthetics (thereby making her less beautiful), she has to pretend to be a man (range!), and she's a gay character (which has been a successful route for everyone from Tom Hanks to Jake Gyllenhaal). But whether or not she gets a nomination, her performance is symptomatic of what's wrong with a lot of "Oscar-worthy" showcase pieces. Though modest and sensitive, "Albert Nobbs" is too much about Close playing a man. She doesn't vanish into the movie. She's bigger than the movie.
That wouldn't be a problem if Close's performance were exquisite. It's not bad at all — it's nicely timid and withdrawn, appropriate for a character who has to hide her true self in public — but it's reined-in in the same way the movie is. But the biggest liability is the gimmick itself: Close does a solid job as the soft-spoken, loyal male butler, but you as the viewer never forget that she's a woman. This is especially troublesome because you can't shake the feeling that, really, some of the other characters ought to realize she's not a man.
While that's the viewpoint from the critic's perspective, it would be interesting if that ends up hurting Close in the Academy Awards race as well. Oscar voters want to believe the magic trick that their stars are conjuring up. Yes, Dustin Hoffman really is an autistic savant in "Rain Man." Yes, gorgeous Charlize Theron really is that awful, ugly serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." But with "Albert Nobbs," the illusion never takes hold. All you see is Glenn Close really, really wanting to be Albert Nobbs.