Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs (15)

“I think you are the strangest man I have ever met,” says Mia Wasikowska’s maid to Glenn Close’s waiter in Albert Nobbs. And she’s right. She has no inkling how accurate is her comment, or for how long Albert has been living a lie while nursing a fantasy.

In other hands Albert Nobbs would be a lumpen “message movie” about female emancipation and the daring nature of 19th century lesbians. In actuality it is a boldly underplayed drama in which Close and Janet McTeer bring plausibility to the cause of women who, for a variety of reasons, chose to live their lives as men.

Albert’s is a closed and precise life of careful deceit. Long disguised as a man to earn a crust in 1880s Dublin she affects a voice, gait and personality to achieve her goals. But the chink in her armour is her isolation and loneliness – a chink made wide by the revelation that she is not alone.

Rodrigo García has crafted a delicious, gentle tale that is also a very personal story. Albert (who never reveals her real name) works hard to be the perfect servant: unseen and anonymous. The curse is that the charade is carried on into private life.

The impressive ensemble cast – including Pauline Collins, Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Bronagh Gallagher – brings to life a fascinating period soaked in Catholic prejudice, Upstairs/Downstairs snobbery and typhus, but the movie belongs to Close and the statuesque McTeer.

One longs for freedom to be herself. The other has accepted a lie lived in plain sight. It is a perceptive and poignant story of love and regret that does not flinch from depicting the harsh truths of its heroines’ existences.

Fault lines appear around Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson as the conniving couple looking to prey on Albert’s decency and generosity, and around Close herself, who always looks like a plain woman in male attire. The 6ft 1ins McTeer, however, is a broad-shouldered kd lang lookalike and enjoys the picture’s best moment – a scene of triumphal revelation that is both droll and powerfully assertive.

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