DVD Release Date: May 15, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: January 27, 2012 (wide)
Rating: R (for sexuality, nudity and strong language)
Genre: Drama, Adaptation
Run Time: 113 min.
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer, Brendan Gleeson, Aaron Johnson

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: a transgender period piece. 

In fact, it’s probably the first. While audiences may not have been clamoring for one, Glenn Close apparently has. Not only is she the star of this literally-transformative film, but she also serves as the lead producer and one of its co-screenwriters. This passion project may have ended up as she envisioned, but it will likely fall short for most (and not simply because of its controversial premise).

It’s nineteenth-century Ireland, and for thirty years Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close, Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil) has been a dutiful butler. He has long served on the staff of a higher class hotel, quietly and humbly going about his business, blending into the background and barely noticed by either patrons or co-workers. He’s respected, even appreciated, but no one is close with him.

That’s by design because Albert holds a secret: he’s really a she. For her entire adult life Albert has daily applied her corset extra tight to eliminate her contours, kept her hair cut short, and gone about her business by drawing as little attention (and intimacy) as possible. 

This carefully maintained disguise—physically and emotionally—is finally upturned when Albert meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), another more self-confident transgender person. This inspires Albert on a course to step out on her own and finally live the life she’s dreamed of: owning a business while still being a man, and finding love with another woman.

The very premise is so polarizing that reactions to it, and the film overall, will in large part be determined by each viewer’s set of values, opinions and, yes, prejudices. But even when setting those views aside (regardless of where they land across the moral spectrum), the film remains burdened by one fundamental flaw: we don’t buy either of these transgendered women as men, and so it’s hard to buy that anyone else would—especially for three decades.

Are they instantly recognizable as women? Maybe not. The disguises are as good as one could hope, but once you get past a quick glance or a view from a distance, the meticulously crafted masquerades don’t hold up. Actual observation causes further suspicion. Albert is well-groomed, Hubert is working class and scruffy, but both basically come off as butch lesbians rather than actual men—and Hubert almost seems intentionally modeled after K.D. Lang, a look that’s effectively less convincing for modern audiences.

It’s not the first movie to ask viewers to suspend disbelief for the sake of its story, but it never earns the right. On the contrary, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly harder to do so—and if we can’t play along, the credibility that those in the movie can be duped begins to fall apart. This film’s power must come from its ability to shock its audience—but we’re never shocked, not even with McTeer’s provocative reveal (she flashes her well-endowed breasts). It’s telling that when the film plays its most powerful card, the only thing it exposes is a weak hand. Even the abuse that led to Albert’s transgender choice is, I dare say, a Freudian cliché.