As the title character in “Albert Nobbs,’’ Glenn Close skulks through Edwardian-era Dublin like a eunuch on a stealth mission. Albert works as a butler at a hotel catering to the privileged classes, and he’s the servant you never notice: dependable, discreet, invisible. The other employees of Morrison’s have passions and disordered lives, but Albert takes pains to have no personality whatsoever. He is duty, and nothing else.
To call attention to himself, of course, would be to risk the discovery that he is actually a she. Based on a short story by George Moore and adapted for the screen by Close and John Banville, “Albert Nobbs’’ treats its cross-dressing heroine with reverent curiosity. How did “Albert’’ get this way and why does she continue the imposture? We eventually find out, but the character’s traumatic history is almost beside the point. The drama lies in the way forward, as Albert takes tentative steps toward having a life of his, or her, own.
Let’s stick with masculine pronouns, since the world sees him as a man - an odd man, but a man - and because he’s so skilled at passing (and because Close is so skilled at conveying that skill). The movie takes place mostly in the hotel’s sitting rooms and servants’ quarters, and it has a sharp eye for the interrelationships of the hired help. Fans of PBS’s “Downton Abbey’’ will find that this pushes the same comfortable buttons of period manners and class-conscious soap opera, but where the TV show is unashamed of melodrama, everything in the film is cautious to the point of stodginess. Still, there’s an ache of regret that sets “Albert Nobbs’’ apart. Everyone here yearns for what they can’t get.
The many characters bustle in and out of the frame: The social-climbing proprietress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins, decades ago the saucy maid of “Upstairs, Downstairs’’); her star boarder and occasional lover Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson); cooks and footmen and housekeepers. The tart-mouthed young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) is drawn to the tempestuous new handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson), who’s drawn to the idea of America across the water. Albert passes among them all, saying nothing.
Until the arrival of a swaggering housepainter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who has the same secret as Albert but for different reasons. The movie develops a bit of static here, since the audience can tell at first glance that Hubert is a woman and we can’t help wondering why the other characters don’t notice. Is the idea of transvestitism so incomprehensible to this corseted society that people’s brains simply can’t process it? No matter: Albert is stunned and delighted to meet Hubert and we’re very lucky to have McTeer, whose deeply sympathetic heartiness anchors the movie and gives us a modern sensibility to cling to.
Albert sees how Hubert passes in society, with a trade and a wife (Bronagh Gallagher, equally fine company), and he decides to do the same, not understanding that Hubert is being fundamentally true to himself while Albert is living a lie. The butler begins to woo Helen with stiff shyness; to the young girl, it’s as if the dresser’s dummy in the corner had suddenly started talking.
As Helen’s lover, Johnson has smoldering good looks and the class rage of a young romantic workingman; Gleeson sounds notes of wisdom and sadness as the doctor. Still - and I say this with all due irony - “Albert Nobbs’’ is a woman’s movie, directed by Rodrigo Garcia with the same knack for emotions thwarted and released that he displayed in “Mother and Child’’ and “Nine Lives.’’ The film views Albert as both an extreme case of repression and a successful one - of a woman who has opted to have no identity rather than have that of a victim.
No wonder Close co-wrote the script; the role’s a challenge and a gift to any actress. The star has never been Hollywood-beautiful, but she carefully erases all traces of vanity from her performance. Albert never meets anyone’s eyes - to see is to be seen, to be seen is to be revealed - and he speaks in the thin voice of an obedient child. When he puts on a bowler and a black suit for walks with Helen, he resembles a gentleman monkey picking his way through the streets.
Close’s performance is the more impressive, but McTeer’s is the warmer and more expansive. (Both actresses were nominated for Oscars this week, and rightly so.) Hubert looks at Albert and mourns the way men and society can warp a woman, marvels at his ingenuity, wonders at his naivete. There’s a scene, late in the film, in which the two women play briefly at being women, as if dressing up for a playdate, and the many strange levels of this tale finally break through the filmmakers’ tastefulness and reserve. “Albert Nobbs’’ goes heavy on the dramatic ironies in its final scenes, but in that one moment we finally are made to feel the thrill of not being seen at all.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.