'Albert Nobbs': 2 performers triumph in gender masquerade -- 2 1/2 stars

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"Such a kind little man," coos the bustling owner of a quaint 19th-century Dublin hotel, regarding her most sphinxlike waiter, the servant played by Glenn Close.

This is Albert Nobbs, and he is actually a she. For reasons we learn gradually, emotional and economic burdens have led this woman (a character created in George Moore's short story "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs") to initiate a decadeslong masquerade and then to lose herself beneath her own facade. A chance meeting with a fellow traveler, a painter played by Janet McTeer, shows Albert a way forward, however bittersweet the discoveries.

Close and McTeer received Academy Award nominations this week for their work in"Albert Nobbs,"directed with supreme discretion and dramatic tact by Rodrigo Garcia. The performers' talent aside, Oscar voters love this sort of thing: It's acting both conspicuous and contained, revealing while concealing.

For years Close has been trying to bring this story to the screen. In the early 1980s she played Albert in an off-Broadway stage version. The play itself, some felt, was static. The charge I'm afraid will stick to the film version as well. But the acting is considerable compensation.

The adaptation by Close, John Banville and Gabriella Prekop does a fair job fleshing out the denizens of the hotel, even as it keeps Albert under wraps. As a fellow hotel employee, Mia Wasikowska adds grace notes of vulnerability as the object of Albert's repressed affections. Brendan Gleeson, Aaron Johnson and, as the owner, Pauline Collins flit about from one plushly overstuffed interior to another.

For a short story expanded to feature length, "Albert Nobbs" accommodates an awful lot of narrative complication, though Albert remains a watchful, often mute figure. This is all deliberate, even if it isn't all effective.

Yet the two key performances that were nominated this week keep a somewhat placid dramatic experience from fading into the woodwork. At one point Albert goes on seaside holiday with McTeer's Hubert. These two sport bonnets and dresses, and the scene becomes a decorous drag show twice over, and with real feeling. I've read complaints that Close's Albert doesn't really look like a man. Two responses: 1. Oh, whatever. Take a leap of faith. And 2. Are you sure Close's Albert doesn't vaguely resemble either Gordon Jackson's Hudson from "Upstairs, Downstairs" or Robin Williams in "Bicentennial Man"?

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Albert Nobbs' -- 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for some sexuality, brief nudity and language)

Running time: 1:53

Opening: Friday

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