I’m going to start out with a minor SPOILER WARNING . Minor, because I suspect most moviegoers knew this going in. But Lee didn’t, so I’ll be careful. If you want to be surprised, stop here, and come back when you’ve seen the movie.
Albert Nobbs is a woman who has passed for a man for many years, in order to be able to get jobs. (This isn’t the surprise, since “he” is played by Glenn Close. You had to have known that.) To her shock, a man, one Hubert Page, is assigned to bunk with her for one night. Hubert discovers that Albert is female, and … reveals that she is a woman, too! (What are the chances? Slim and none, I figure, but it’s okay as a plot device.) This imposter is played by Janet McTeer, who in real life is a hell of a good-looking woman (as is Glenn Close), but both have some subtle make-up to render them more masculine. Hubert is living with—actually, married to—another woman, played by Bronagh Gallagher, who we have loved since her part in The Commitments. This sets poor Albert’s mind abuzz, and he dreams of marrying a trashy maid who works in the same hotel. They would open a tobacconist’s shop and live happily ever after. She/he never gets around to asking Albert how she/he proposed, and did the wife learn of her sex before or after marriage? Are they actually lesbians, or is it an arrangement of convenience? I’d like to have known this, too, but we never learn, and I’m okay with it. What’s not in doubt is that they love each other, which is something that seems strange to Albert. He courts the maid, and seems puzzled when she asks him if he is in love with her. I don’t think he really has that capacity. Life has forced her to be more practical than that. The maid also has a scheming boyfriend who only wants to milk Albert of all his money. So you know this is all going to end badly, and the only question is, how badly?
It’s a damn good film, made so mostly by the performances of the two cross-dressers. Both actresses got Oscar nominations, both lost, to Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer. I won’t argue, though both performances were certainly Oscar caliber. They are so good, in fact, that in a scene where they get together and finally go out wearing dresses in public for the first time in many years, they look like bad female impersonators. The movie was a labor of love that took Glenn Close 30 years to get made, from a stage play she starred in back in 1982. Perseverance can pay off, even in Hollywood.