BEHIND every great man, there is supposedly a great woman.
Some of the finest works of literature take this notion at face value, concealing the sex of resourceful heroines behind a manly garb.
The Country Wife by William Wycherley, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings and, more recently, Tipping The Velvet by Sarah Waters all use disguises as a potent dramatic device.
And Shakespeare’s texts are littered with gutsy daughters like Portia in The Merchant Of Venice and Viola in Twelfth Night, who pass themselves off as men to expose the foolhardiness of their so-called masters.
While Albert Nobbs falls short of great art, this handsome and languid period piece is distinguished by a scintillating, tour-de-force central performance from Glenn Close as an emotionally damaged woman, who passes herself off as the titular butler to survive the hardships of late 19th century Ireland.
It’s a virtuoso portrayal and any hints of femininity vanish completely in Close’s intense, studied portrayal; her silent and mournful glances hint at dreams that must be suppressed in a rarefied world where money talks, but pompous, overbearing men talk even louder.
Albert Nobbs (Close) is a dedicated member of staff at Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin owned by Mrs Baker (Pauline Collins), who indulges the fancies of her well-to-do guests including Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his boozy coterie.
For years, Albert has kept his gender a secret but the subterfuge is shattered when the butler shares his room with painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who also turns out to be a woman in disguise.
Hubert agrees to keep Albert’s confidence and discloses that he has a wife (Bronagh Gallagher).
This stunning revelation inspires Albert to contemplate a marriage proposal to pretty maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska).
However, she doesn’t share his dream of a tobacco shop in the back alleys.
New employee Joe (Aaron Johnson), who is romancing Helen, scents “a whiff of money” from Nobbs and he encourages her to conduct a sham romance “as long as there’s a bob in his pocket and you’ve a hand to pull it out”.
Albert Nobbs is dominated by Close as the lackey who believes “life without decency is unbearable” and by an equally mesmerising supporting turn from McTeer. Such is the transformative power of their fearless performances, when Albert and Hubert step out in dresses, the two actresses look awkward in such frilly apparel.
The plot, adapted from a short story by Irish writer George Moore, is pedestrian and linear and there is an inevitable tragedy hovering over the film in its closing frames.
Yet through sombre tones, there are tangible notes of hope and defiance, sparked by strong, defiant women who refuse to be consigned to the shadows.