Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Director Peter Yates tends to be remembered for his action films, such as 1967's stylish
Bullitt, but he's also chalked up a number of excellent character pieces. This 1983
play adaptation about an eccentric English actor with an imposing reputation and even bigger
personality problems is a delight from one end to the other. Albert Finney (still in fine form
in pix like Big Fish) and Tom Courtenay are wonderful as the almost senile ham and the
personal assistant who waits on him hand and foot. The rest of the cast is a collection of pleasant
"Sir" (Albert Finney) is a highly-respected Shakespearean actor in a broken-down
traveling company of thespians. Because of war shortages, transportation, lodging and simple things
like face powder are tough to come by, but the audiences are as appreciative as ever. Trying to
keep Sir on his feet and fit to perform is Norman, his dresser (Tom Courtenay), a fussy busybody
with a weakness for his hip flask. The trouble is that Sir is becoming so erratic in his
behavior, some of the company including his wife "Her Ladyship" (Zena Walker) wonder if he should
be performing at all.
I've read that The Dresser is basically a true story compiled from a variety of English theater
experiences, and that Sir is roughly based on actor Sir Donald Wolfit, a bearish, glowering powerhouse
seen in small roles in big pictures (General Murray, Lawrence of Arabia) and large roles in
small pictures (Dr. Callistratus, Blood of the Vampire). Wolfit was reportedly the model for
the overbearing, bigger-than-life "Ac-tor" who carried his stage prerogatives over into real life,
the kind of fellow who mesmerizes audiences but between shows made life miserable for anyone around him.
Depending on what one reads, Wolfit's legacy is alternately diminished and lionized, but it's well-served
by Ronald Harwood's play The Dresser, where most of the actor's maddening behavior can be
chalked up to incipient senility.
Everything about the story is either charming or amusing. Yates' recreation of wartime England in the
industrial sticks is a collection of dark stone lanes, open markets and crowded pubs where Sir's
touring troupe is known and respected. The war is definitely there, but life goes on even though bombs
are raining down regularly.
Albert Finney holds screen center for more than half the running time, and he's a delight, a big pain
of a man desperately trying to hold his intolerably self-centered world together, even when he barely
comprehends what's going on. Out in public, he stares dumbly at a bombed house, and weakly
acknowledges his charming local fans. He knows that supplies are dear and all the good actors are
away fighting so he's stuck with overaged hams and malcontents. The muttering Oxenby (Edward Fox) has
a perpetual scowl that shows his resentment, but he's one of Sir's few truly competent performers. Oxenby's
painful-looking limp might be a war injury. Michael Gough is smartly cast as Frank Carrington, an agreeable
but second-rate actor who foolishly tries to curry favor with the boss.
Sir is so self-obsessed and vain that nobody sees what's happening to him except Norman, his dresser.
The play covers one theater move and the ragged preparations for a performance that nobody is sure
will come off. Sir starts in ridiculously poor shape and has to be reconstructed from the ego up
by Norman, who plays all kinds of games to get him washed and into costume. Not helping much is Madge,
the stage manager who once hoped to be Sir's wife (Madge). Her Ladyship's concern for Sir waned a
long time ago when she realized that even her best efforts will always be ignored. In a cute scene that
pretty much sums up Sir's relations with female cast members, he "auditions" an aspiring young
girl (Cathryn Harrison) for the thrill of seeing her legs. She also weighs a fraction of his present
leading lady, and he's thinking of how much lighter she'll be to carry on stage!
Tom Courtenay has possibly his best role since
Billy Liar. Norman minces and preens
but he's also the dynamo of energy that recharges Sir's tired batteries and gets him going one more
time. He can be spiteful but he's mostly kind and protective. When Sir is convinced he's forgotten
dialogue (or which play he's performing) Norman can get him back on the right track. The rest of
the company doesn't understand Norman's function and
sees him as a detriment, perhaps even the cause of Sir's troubles. When Sir is gone, the entire
maladroit troupe will surely dissolve, and Norman's reward for years of tireless love and service
isn't going to be pretty. He's a great study of the pitfalls of devotion and a memorably sympathetic
If I had to pick a favorite moment in The Dresser it
would be the scene in the railway station where poor Norman is desperately trying to get a train
conductor to hold a departure for the 30 seconds it will take the tardy troupe to board. Norman is
told to "sod off" and the train starts to leave, when Sir raises his cane from a hundred yards away
and bellows "Stop that TRAIN!" in a commanding voice that's too big even for the cavernous
station. The engineer throws on the brakes as if he'd heard the voice of God. Sir and his motley
troupe board without further incident. It's a moment atypical of the theater-bound The Dresser,
but it gets applause in theaters every time.
Columbia TriStar's The Dresser has no real extras but the excellent transfer will be more
than enough to please. The enhanced image has good detail and color and looks much better than the
import print I saw in '83, and far better than the dank, flat television transfers. The package
text accentuates the film's fame (five Oscar nominations including Best Picture) even as it can't find
a suitable main image. The smiling and genial-looking Albert Finney on the box top doesn't remind us
of the Sir of the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Dresser rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 21, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson