The film tells the story of Albert Nobbs—we never learn what her name was when she presented herself as a woman—who works in a high-class hotel as a waiter. More often than not, Nobbs is portrayed as a closed-off man, staring off into the distance, keeping to himself, valuing his privacy to an obsessive degree. We soon learn, however, that Albert is biologically a female when he accidentally gives himself away to a painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who also reveals himself to be a biological woman who turned to dressing as a man to escape her abusive husband.
It’s difficult to assign pronouns to either Hubert or Albert, which I think is a fascinatingly new way to make a movie. Certainly, ambiguity is difficult to pull off well in a movie—I know that I wanted to know if Albert or Hubert felt more comfortable as women or men, and if they would be considered to be lesbians or transgendered individuals by today’s society. Simultaneously, I was happy that the film was left ambiguous. Our modern world likes to so concretely categorize things like gender, love and sex, and the film’s ambiguity better took into account 19th-century life in Ireland than any in-depth discussion about gender and sex could have. Instead, the movie focuses on exploring treatments for loneliness and unhappiness.
In contrast to this admirable ambiguity, some of the movie’s storylines were often too pat. After meeting Mr. Page, Albert soon finds out that she has married a woman. The pair live together and are apparently in love, but viewers don’t know if Mr. Page’s wife prefers him as a woman or a man. Similarly, Albert tries to take a wife, awkwardly courting maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) and asking her to marry him. While one can ignore labeling Albert Nobbs’ sexual preferences absolutely, it’s difficult to understand how a marriage could work when one partner didn’t know the other’s gender until the wedding night. It was sort of like the elephant in the room, especially for viewers who aren't comfortable with ambiguity.
Bottom line: Very good, but seems destined to be a movie in search of an audience.