Albert Nobbs is Glenn Close's baby. After playing the titular character onstage, and putting in decades of effort, the odd little tale of a 19th century Irish woman passing as a man has finally arrived on-screen. As a showpiece for Close's ability to nail Nobbs's every nuance, it's unimpeachable. With the help of some cosmetic prostheses, Close is clearly well studied as the quiet, irreparably repressed, fearful, and miserable character. Outside of her technical proficiencies, however, the film only winks at its opportunities to satisfyingly engage with the complex social history roiling just underneath its surface.
An orphan and victim of rape, the young Nobbs began posing as a man to escape the squalor and violence of the Dublin slums, finding work as a hotel waiter. As if to discourage anyone from looking closely, Nobbs's demeanor is still and impassive, his work impeccable. Meanwhile, he's hoarding every penny under the floorboard, scheming to one day open a tobacco shop. The plot clicks into motion when Hubert Page (an almost ridiculously swaggering Janet McTeer) appears, another woman passing as a man. The fact that Page has a wife blows Nobbs's mind and sets him on an ill-fated quest after his coworker, a young maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska).
As a depiction of closeted lesbianism during a difficult era, Nobbs only flirts with the possibility. While the romantic nature of Page's relationship is just short of explicitly stated, Nobbs's asexual, practical-minded approach to courtship is center stage. Single and pregnant, Helen is doomed by society, leading Nobbs to the logical conclusion that marrying would be of mutual benefit.
There are no sexual awakenings in this film, however, and the desperate choices of these characters are only superficially examined. Rather than a timely, powerful comment, the film skirts the edges, as if lacking the guts to delve into its most interesting material, stubbornly focused on its sad, strange protagonist.