Drama starring Glenn Close as a man is a sad but brilliant oddity

Cert: 15

What a queer treasure of a film this is. Starring Glenn Close in an Oscar-worthy turn as a woman disguised as a man in 19th century Dublin, the film is based on a book by George Moore, an Irish novelist and poet of the late 1800s, and directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

The setting is a posh hotel in Dublin; the clientele is a mixture of English, Irish and exotic aristocrats and playboys, one of whom is played by Jonathan Rhys Myers.

An early scene shows Myers getting out of a bed he has shared with a man. The theme of homosexuality is to be taken up with great pathos and confusion by Nobbs.

What’s immediately arresting is how convincing Close is as a tightly wound, intensely private man – a scene in which a flea forces him to jump out of bed and undo his chest-wrap is truly shocking.

Nobbs is the most experienced and efficient employee of the hotel, and squirrels away his earnings with the utmost care, in a panel under the floor – for what end we don’t know until the story takes a twist Nobbs himself never predicted. In fact, we know little of Nobbs’ history or the origin of the male attire – just once does he reveal anything of his past.

The layers of Nobbs’ tightly-bound (in all senses) persona start to unwrap with the appearance at the hotel of a Mr Hubert Page, a jobbing painter-decorator. Through Page, a new world opens before Nobbs, seeming to present a paradise within easy reach. It involves the winning over of the very pretty hotel maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), who Nobbs becomes convinced is the key to a future of prosperity and happiness. As his/her sexuality becomes ever more clearly homo-erotic, the gap between reality and fantasy grows painfully wider, especially as Dawes becomes tied up with the handsome ne’er do well Joe Mackin (Aaron Johnson, aka Sam Taylor Wood’s much-younger boyfriend).

It’s a terribly sad tale, but an interesting one and full of life, too – a snapshot of a time and place with people and conditions that seem incredibly far away and difficult. Intensely shot and cleverly understated, this is not to be missed.