Glenn Close's passion project "Albert Nobbs" might sound familiar to fans of "Downton Abbey," with its tales of unrequited love and deeply held secrets among the hired help; but this period drama is more than meets the eye.
Albert Nobbs is a meticulous butler in a swanky Irish hotel. He's quiet and stiff, with closely cropped hair and a low, halting voice. He has impeccable manners, rarely makes eye contact with the rich patrons, and fades into the background whenever possible.
Albert Nobbs is also a woman. Behind the impassive exterior, tightly bound breasts and uncanny special-effects makeup beats the heart of a lonely person who has no idea other women also live as men to make their way in the world in the 19th century.
Glenn Close first played the cross-dressing butler in an off-Broadway play, "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs," and has been trying to get this adaptation off the ground for years. As the star, producer and cowriter of the adaptation, she helped round up an impressive cast for this Oscar-bait-y drama, and has been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. But Janet McTeer (also nominated for an Oscar) is a standout as Hubert Page, a woman also living as a man who opens Albert's eyes to the possibilities of life and love. Hubert is as bold and vivacious and outspoken as Albert is meek, as sensual and earthy as Albert is tightly corseted.
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Albert's new lease on life is heartbreaking and inspiring, even as he haltingly begins courting Helen, a maid played by Mia Wasikowska who declares him "the strangest man I've ever met." Aaron Johnson is excellent as Joe Macken, a handsome young man looking for a way to get to America. Brendan Gleeson, Pauline Collins and Maria Doyle Kennedy round out the cast as an empathetic drunken doctor, the greedy hotel owner and a maid with a secret of her own. And Jonathan Rhys Meyers has a small part as a rakish patron whose personal habits highlight how much easier it is for rich men to live their sexual lives as they please -- in Albert Nobbs' lifetime and in our own.