Looks can be deceiving. It took 30 years for Glenn Close to make a film version of Albert Nobbs, a role she performed on stage in the early 80s.
The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, the tale of a woman pretending to be a man, is a 1927 short story by Irish writer George Moore that was adapted by the French feminist playwright and director Simone Benmussa, and later brought to the English-speaking stage - in London in 1978 and New York in 1982 by Susannah York and Glenn Close respectively.
Making a screen version has been a passion for the versatile Close ever since, but the success of the idea has been rather undermined by the 30-year delay. Nobbs was always going to be an odd creature - "I think you're the strangest man I've ever met," one character says to him/her at one point - but, now nearly 65, the actor inevitably creates a persona who looks less androgyne than circus freak, with papery skin stretched over a cadaverous visage.
The New York Times' review of her stage performance praised her transformation as "affecting her manner, movement and sensibility" but it's hard to see it that way here. Her Albert is an artifice that never really becomes a character: his concealment becomes the work, rather than a key that helps us unlock the human being.
The setting is a Dublin hotel, where Albert, more than a waiter, is a trusted and treasured servant, a keeper of the flame of tradition (a marvellous early set-piece of dinner service as precisely choreographed theatre gives us an idea of the standards aspired to).
When the hard-pressed owner (Collins) undertakes some renovations, she asks Albert to let a visiting house painter, Hubert Page, share his bed. This development is the cue for a sharp change of narrative direction which should not be disclosed here.
The reason for Nobbs' dissembling is rooted in gender inequality but his aspirations, which involve the wooing of a chambermaid, come to seem more ridiculous than they should because of the age difference.
There's no denying the class of this production - a superb cast and production values make it a rewarding watch.
But it's hard to shake the feeling that it's more than a theatrical curio writ a little too large.
Movie: Albert Nobbs
Stars: 3.5 / 5
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Pauline Collins
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Running time: 109 mins Rating: M (nudity, sex scenes)
Verdict: Curiouser and curiouser