The Dresser (1983)
“What happens backstage is always true drama. And often pure comedy.”
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox
Synopsis: An effeminate personal assistant of a deteriorating veteran actor struggles to get him through a difficult performance of King Lear.
Many stage plays do not travel well when transferred to the screen, and The Dresser, an ultimately poignant study of the relationship between a Shakespearian actor (Albert Finney) and his dresser (Tom Courtenay) initially looked as if it would be one of those that suffered during the transition. Finney especially comes across as too strident and overbearing in the first part of the film, too much of a caricature to win the sympathy of the audience as he battles (with little success) against his mental disintegration. While Finney rages, Courtenay prances effeminately as the camp eponymous dresser Norman, who dotes on his tyrannical boss like a devoted mother, and tortuously coaxes him back from the brink of a breakdown to assume the make-up and garb of King Lear, whose story this film mirrors in a number of ways.
Director Yates captures the slightly seedy environment of wartime Britain with its drab colours and dull furniture, and evokes the sense of dedication of the small-time actors even as they fret and complain. Sir, Finney’s character (allegedly based on actor Donald Wolfitt for whom writer Ronald Harwood was once a dresser), holds tyrannical sway over the entire company, despite being riddled with insecurities that repeatedly turn him from a bull-voiced egotist to a twitching, stuttering wreck, and grabs our sympathy a little at a time, and it’s here that the power of Finney’s performance shines through as he turns that essentially stereotypical character into a real human tormented by all too human fears. Courtenay matches his performance here in a part that, judging by the way he so completely inhabits his character, could have been tailor-made for him. The screen doesn’t really know what to do with a talent like Courtenay’s — this was his first film role in more than ten years — which is a great shame because, with the right material, he is peerless. Ostensibly the better adjusted of the pair, Norman’s insecurities manifest themselves in different ways: while Sir’s weaknesses are bellowed out for all to see and hear, Norman’s are internalised, and indicated by his constant swigs of brandy from the bottle he habitually carries in his back pocket, and only come to the surface in a blistering final act. The smaller roles are also portrayed with equal care and attention to detail as those of the leads — especially that of Madge, a sensitive performance from Eileen Atkins, and Oxenby (Edward Fox), the second-lead whose talent so terrifies Sir.
The Dresser requires some patience on the part of the audience as it sets about drawing us into the lives of a strange and obsessed pair of characters who initially appear undeserving of our sympathy, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a slyly humorous, observant and insightful piece of work.
(Reviewed 29th October 2005)