There will always be broad comedies about people impersonating members of the opposite sex -- classics like Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and Victor/Victoria spring to mind immediately. While those films all have something deeper to say about our preconceived notions about gender roles, not that many dramas address the issue with the delicacy of Albert Nobbs.
Set in 19th century Ireland, director Rodrigo Garcia's movie stars Glenn Close as the title character, a woman who has been posing publically as a man for decades in order to stay employed. Currently the head of the waitstaff at a hotel, Albert saves her money and occasionally goes to great lengths to hide her secret from the maids, her boss, and the hotel's drunken doctor (played with roguish sensitivity by the always reliable Brendan Gleeson).
The truth becomes even more difficult to hide when Hubert (Janet McTeer), a painter working at the building, is ordered to bunk with Albert. However, when Hubert pieces together the truth about Albert, the new roommate is in the unique position of empathizing with her, for Hubert is also a woman trying to survive in a man's world without a man.
That description does make Albert Nobbs sound like a farce, but the movie's delicate tone lets us know how seriously we're supposed to take Albert's situation, and Close's performance is masterfully economical. We stop seeing a man or woman at some point and just see Albert, a person who has been pretending to be someone else for so long that she doesn't know for sure who she is. She's not fully herself, and not fully Albert, and this problem reveals itself in minor ways throughout the film, but it comes to a head during Albert's interactions with Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid at the hotel whom Albert grows both fond and protective of. When the headstrong Helen falls for a callow lothario, Albert feels she's found the right person on whom to spend the savings she's built up.
While Close dominates the movie with her masterful performance, there is great work being done throughout the cast. McTeer becomes the movie's soul, imbuing Hubert with a confidence that only highlights Albert's discomfort; unlike our hero, Hubert is comfortable in her own skin. Wasikowska, who was brilliant in Garcia's HBO series In Treatment, simultaneously plays the best and worst aspects of Helen's immaturity; we can see why Albert is drawn to her and how dangerous their relationship could become.
As a director, Garcia might be the poster boy for unassuming humanism. His work aims to draw viewers in because of his rich attention to the details of human behavior, and in that regard Albert Nobbs is very recognizably his. This isn't Masterpiece Theater, and it isn't Merchant/Ivory either. It's a gentle, subdued character study presented without an ounce of bombast or melodrama.