There is one reason “Albert Nobbs” is getting released this week (of all weeks), and that reason is named Oscar. As in the Academy Awards, the nominations for which were announced Tuesday.
This very small, low-budget film garnered three Oscar nominations: for Glenn Close and Janet McTeer as best actress and supporting actress, and for best makeup. The latter nomination might be clearer understood when you learn that Close and McTeer plays women who “pass” as male in the film.
The title character has pretended to be a male butler for many years. In late-19th century Dublin, she works, unsuspected, in a mildly disreputable hotel.
A chance encounter with a more self-confident type (played by McTeer) becomes a life-changing experience for Albert. There’s no romance between them; just a glimpse, for Albert, of the idea that one might actually be happy, not merely controlled and hidden.
The film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia and based on a story by the Irish writer George Moore, takes time for subplots, including one about an impetuous maid (Mia Wasikowska, from “Jane Eyre”) smitten with an unreliable laborer (Aaron Johnson, from “Nowhere Boy”).
Despite all that, “Albert Nobbs” feels more like a sketch than a full-fledged feature. But that sketch has a touching subject — the possibility of living life authentically — and the actors give finely tuned performances. Wasikowska keeps getting better with each role, and Pauline Collins and Brendan Gleeson remind us of the value of having old pros in key parts, as the opportunistic hotel proprietress and a tippling doctor, respectively.
But really, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer bring the theme to life. Close, who played the role in a stage version many years ago and shepherded the property to film, is all careful gestures and tight voice, yet she doesn’t miss the comic possibilities contained within this poor soul, either.
McTeer, a statuesque actress best known for her stage and TV work (though Oscar-nominated for “Tumbleweeds” in 1999), has a much more expansive role than Close, and she wrings wonderful warmth and humor from it. Their differing styles are exactly right for the parts.
Albert Nobbs saves tip money beneath the floorboards of her bedroom, and dreams of saving enough to open a little tobacco shop. That modest ambition comes to mean a lot while we’re watching this movie, which is scaled at just the right size for its diminutive protagonist.
Glenn Close and Janet McTeer provide Oscar-nominated performances in this tale of a woman masquerading as a male butler, who begins to glimpse the possibilities of a more authentic life. The movie’s not much more than a sketch, but maybe it’s scaled at just the right size for its protagonist.
Rating: R for nudity, subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Harvard Exit.