Nominated for 5 Academy awards (Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Courtenay, Best Actor in a Leading Role: Albert Finney, Best Director: Peter Yates, Best Picture: Peter Yates, Best Writing Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Ronald Harwood)
Although immensely popular after the initial release, Peter Yates’ solid, well-acted, if somewhat forgettable drama The Dresser (1983) has fallen by the wayside despite garnering five Academy Award nominations and numerous BAFTA nominations. The film is above all a vehicle for some noteworthy acting by two veteran British actors (on stage and in film) Tom Courtney, as the effeminate (homosexual) manservant Norman, and Albert Finney, Norman’s master (an aged Shakespearean actor), who goes by the odd name Sir. The supporting cast is also up to the task–despite remaining in the background– since they shine in their infrequent scenes. The Dresser, adapted from a well-known Broadway play, still has the feel of theater and doesn’t fully embrace the cinematic medium. One gets the frustrating sense that the film version doesn’t add anything to the original theater version (albeit, I haven’t seen the Broadway production).
Brief Plot summary (limited spoilers)
The year is 1940 and Britain is devastated by the Blitz. Sir (Finney), an increasingly senile Shakespearean actor, is the head of a rag tag theater troupe touring Britain’s provinces of elderly and occasionally resentful actors, a distant and increasingly heavy (and thus hard for Sir to carry) wife, and a besotted stage manager (Eileen Atkins). Sir is attended to in all aspects of his daily life and preparation for his roles by Norman, an effeminate manservant who gives everything to keep Sir on the stage (for example, reminding him hour to hour the name of the play to be performed, the first lines, reminding him how to put on his makeup, washing him, etc etc). The film spans the production of King Lear, played by Sir. Norman pulls out all the strings to prepare Sir and his own feelings (and resentment) come to fore. It is the dialogue and interaction behind the scenes of the production between Sir and Norman which constitutes most of the film.
The Dresser is entirely a character driven film. Peter Yates’ visuals are minimal and uninvolved on purpose. Occasionally, we glimpse scenes from the production of King Lear but these sets are worn and faded reflecting the dire situation of the troupe and war torn England. This stark, dreary, subdued feel (especially with the panic inducing air raid siren) throughout reminds the audience of the historical backdrop.
Both male leads are well fleshed out characters. Norman, a immensely caring and loyal servant, yearns for the slightest recognition of his efforts from other members of the troupe but above all, from Sir. Sir himself, who in his senile state (and most likely before) perhaps thinks too highly of his own abilities (he attempts to pen his autobiography at various points in the narrative), maintains an external charisma despite his inner turmoils and confusion. His dual persona — the one he shows on stage and to the various other members of the troupe who don’t fully realize how senile he’s become and the one we see through his interactions with Norman — is immediately and disturbingly apparent.
My only qualm in regards to the two characters is the overacting. This makes sense in regards to Sir who carries his Shakespearean mannerisms and voice into his daily life — however, even this tends to get somewhat grating and forced. The character of Norman is also often overacted which has the unfortunate result of reducing his character into the realm of cliché and type (the homosexual British man). These are somewhat minor qualms and shouldn’t detract too much from these two wonderful portrayals.
This is a dark film. No scene is superfluous (besides occasionally, the acting). I’ve always been interested in films about movies (for example, 8 1/2, Day for Night, and to a lesser extent Cinema Paradiso) and films about theater so The Dresser was a must see. I’m not sure that this is a classic since I have the sneaking suspicion that unless I write this review I would soon forget the images and characters. If one likes good, solid, dark British dramas this is a great choice which deserves at least a little resurgence of the recognition and praise it initially received.