Glenn Close" is nominated for Best Actress for her role...

Glenn Close" is nominated for Best Actress for her role in "Albert Nobbs." Credit: AP

To a modern eye, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer may not look instantly convincing as women passing for men in "Albert Nobbs." But a revelatory moment comes late in the film, when their characters change gender yet again, stepping out in flouncy dresses and bonnets. They look ungainly and uncomfortable. They look more than a little homely. They look, finally and unquestionably, like men.

That small but crucial scene speaks volumes about this funny, sorrowful, richly layered and tremendously moving film. Though classifiable as "gay," that seems a narrow definition for a film that isn't much concerned with sex or even love. Essentially, it's a movie about what it means to be happy.

Close, who played the cross-dressing, 19th Century Dubliner Albert Nobbs in a 1982 play (based on a short story by George Moore) and co-wrote this film version, presents us with a case so closeted that his "real" identity has evaporated. A lifelong butler, Nobbs doesn't even want to live out loud; he wants to buy a tobacco-shop and find a wife. A pretty servant-girl, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), fits the bill, but she's not impressed by merchant-class aspirations. She's hoping to emigrate to America with Joe (Aaron Johnson), an attractive but hard-drinking repairman.

Close is heartbreaking as the emotionally crippled Nobbs, but it's McTeer who breathes life and soul into the movie as Hubert. A tall, swaggering fellow, he shocks Nobbs by revealing three things: first, his breasts, and then, his wife.

McTeer represents new vistas of happiness, though they may be out of Nobbs' reach. That gap is what makes "Albert Nobbs" such a deeply and universally human film.

PLOT In 19th century Dublin, a woman passing as a man begins to consider marriage.

CAST Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson. RATING R (language, brief nudity, adult themes)

LENGTH 1:53.

PLAYING AT Area theaters.

BOTTOM LINE This overlooked film is also one of the year's best, full of humor, sorrow and beautiful performances from Close and McTeer.

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