Some films that depict the past function as allegories for current events. Robert Redford’s recent movie The Conspirator, although ostensibly about the trial of persons allegedly involved in President Lincoln’s murder, was really a thinly disguised commentary on the rule of law in the post 9-11 world. Similarly, Albert Nobbs, while set in the Victorian era, functions as a parable about current gender issues and the much discussed growing inequality between the haves and have-nots. Both films (particularly Nobbs) suffer from a certain heavy-handedness in putting their points across which undermines the social messages that the movies try to champion.

Glenn Close stars as Albert Nobbs, a servant in a 19th century Dublin hotel which caters to the aristocracy and the wealthy. Nobbs is actually a woman who disguised herself as a man to obtain employment. Although Nobbs lives in the servants’ quarters of the hotel, none of her colleagues are aware of her true gender.

A painter (Hubert Page played by Janet McTeer) is temporarily hired to renovate portions of the hotel. Improbably, Nobbs discovers that Page is also a woman impersonating a man. Page also reveals that she is involved in a same-sex marriage, although the modalities of how this was arranged under Victorian law are never quite defined.

Under the influence of Page, Nobbs begins to court a young chamber maid (Mia Wasikowska) but it is never clear what Nobbs’ motivation is in cultivating the relationship. Is Nobbs generally interested in the maid or does Nobbs feel that the appearance of the relationship will create an aura of respectability? Nobbs also never reveals her true gender to the maid, which adds to the general air of improbability. Regardless of one’s views of same-sex relationships, the almost Poe-like bizarreness of the film undermines the movie’s ability to deal credibly with its underlying themes.

Although Close has been nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal, I found her performance of Nobbs too consistently timid and reserved to be interesting. In her Victorian suit and hat, and projecting a consistent air of vulnerability, Close physically recalls a blonde version of Charlie Chaplin. Janet McTeer, whose character seems more fluidly comfortable as a cross-dresser, has also been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar.

The film seems meticulous in its creation of a Victorian setting, and comes across as a somewhat eccentric version of Upstairs, Downstairs, a series that also dealt with class distinctions. However, the numerous scenes in Nobbs of servants being mistreated by the wealthy lack subtlety, and the display of the disparity of wealth and the abuse of the lower classes is crude and overly obvious. The many scenes of tension between the upper and lower classes were almost certainly meant to reflect the current debate about the growing gaps in income levels in Europe and the U.S.

This relentlessly depressing film recalls Tootsie, another film dealing with cross-dressing. Although Tootsie is ostensibly a comedy, it treats gender issues with far more subtlety, insight and √©lan. Roll, Tootsie roll…