I'm always skeptical of performances that are claimed to be "fully unrecognizable" and at first I must admit that it just felt like Close playing a man, but as the film continued I slowly lost sight of my cynicism and when a later scene portrays Nobbs wearing a dress for the first time I was blown away at the fact that I was seeing this woman be a real woman for the first time. I was amazed at how absorbed Close was in the role, I genuinely forgot all about this woman playing a character and just believed the character's facade, as well as Close's. Close has gotten attention for the role as a potential Oscar vehicle and some have lashed back against that due to the performance being quite restrained, but I admire her delicacy in taking on the role. This is a woman who spent her entire life trying to blend in and be unseen, and Close's ability to be this fly on the wall creature is remarkable.
I was glad that there weren't any hysterics on her part and when the few scenes came where, in isolation, she broke down I was devastated by this woman fearing for her life to unravel. It's such a delicate and entirely human performance, and as far as I'm concerned one of the best of Close's very strong career. The central narrative revolves around Nobbs' desire to woo a young maid named Helen (played with an Irish tilt by the up-and-coming Australian Mia Wasikowska, again shining) to leave their life of servitude and open up a tobacco shop together. Throughout the film I was bothered by this belief that Nobbs was supposed to be in love with Helen and that's why she wanted to open the shop with her, but as the film reached it's final conclusion I came to the realization that it had nothing to do with love.
Throughout her life Nobbs had put in all of her effort to having no one notice her that when she's introduced to a similar woman masquerading as a man (played by the strong and unbelievably convincing Janet McTeer) who has a happy life married to a woman, Nobbs realizes the potential that maybe she doesn't have to live her life alone. It's not about loving Helen at all, it's just about not wanting to be alone anymore and once that became apparent to me the film became quite devastating. Nobbs trapped herself in this prison and Close plays it with such restrained heartache that it truly hit a level with me. Even in writing this I am realizing that the film had a much stronger impact on me than I had previously thought. This is a devastating story of a woman trapped in circumstances of her own making, portrayed with such genuine believability by Close that I forgot I was watching an actress pretend to be a man but instead just saw Nobbs.
There's a line where McTeer's character asks Nobbs what her name is and she responds, "Albert". Then McTeer repeats the question, clearly asking for her birthname instead of the one she is hiding behind and Nobbs again responds, "Albert". At the time I rolled my eyes at the exchange, but now that the whole film has settled with me it speaks so much to this trapped, wounded soul who was so lost in herself that she couldn't escape her own prison, let alone the one that she had built for Nobbs. I found Albert Nobbs to be quite the moving, hushed character piece led by a wrenching performance by Close and backed up by several other strong performances from McTeer, Wasikowska and a grimy Aaron Johnson.