It was 1982 when Glenn Close first played Albert Nobbs, a woman in 19th century Ireland who, thanks to a short ’do and vaguely androgynous features, has passed herself off as a man, in order to reap the then-vocational benefits of the gender. Preserving this performance on film has been her goal since. There are three things sad about this. One, that it took Close three decades to get it mounted. Two, that Close, while semi-credible as a man, is stuck with a frankly boring role. And three, that after all this time and effort (Close also co-produced and co-wrote the script, and wrote the lyrics to the credits song sung by Sinéad O’Connor), the end product wound up being utterly stolen by someone doing the same thing Close was doing, only better.
Though Close, luckily, has attracted most of the press and awards, the film is at its sprightliest whenever it has in its midst Janet McTeer. The mostly-forgotten Oscar Nominee for Tumbleweeds plays Hubert Page, another woman who’s also successfully passed herself off as a man. While Nobbs labors for the bourgeoisie, hoping to save up enough money to purchase a tobacconist’s shop of her very own, Page already basically has it figured out, with a home and a doting wife. Moreover, Page is charismatic—gleefully profane and comfortably masculine, able to pass herself off as the lesser sex less with appearances than with attitude.
Close’s Nobbs, on the other hand, is stiff and opaque, constantly wearing an expression that makes Buster Keaton’s great stoneface look like Jim Carrey. We can’t even tell if her pursuit of lowly maid (Mia Wasikowska) is out of infatuation or the mere practical need of a ladywife. Close’s rigid mien is, of course, intentional—Nobbs is supposed to never feel comfortable in her own skin, not even during an interlude where she runs across a beach in a dress before symbolically falling. But the only thing interesting about Nobbs is that she’s pretending to be the other gender, and the filmmakers assume that’s enough. The film’s arrival in the middle of Downton Abbey Fever, meanwhile, is excellent, but the background of servanthood never springs to life, not even with a handful of dalliances with a horny Brendan Gleeson.
With exceptions, male cross-dressing is at least intended, however successfully, as an easy laugh. (Or in Jack Lemmon’s and Dustin Hoffman’s cases, an actual good one.) For whatever reason, hilarity doesn’t automatically arise when the cross-dressing goes the other way.