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The Dresser

The Dresser
Columbia TriStar
1983 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 118 min. / Street Date 2004 /
Starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox, Zena Walker, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gough, Cathryn Harrison, Betty Marsden
Cinematography Kelvin Pike
Production Designer Stephen B. Grimes
Art Direction Colin Grimes
Film Editor Ray Lovejoy
Original Music James Horner
Written by Ronald Harwood from his play
Produced by Ronald Harwood, Peter Yates
Directed by Peter Yates

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 surprises.


"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 character.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 21, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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