Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Dresser (1983)

I don't normally like to do posts on movies only available on streaming if they aren't coming up on TV, but I've got an almost full DVR as well as a bunch of recently-watched movies about World War II that I want to space out, so today's post is going to be about The Dresser, out-of-print on DVD but available at Amazon prime video.

The movie starts off near the end of a performance of Shakespeare's Othello at a theater somewhere in England in the early part of World War II. The curtain comes down, and we know that we've got a towering actor at the head of the company as Sir (Albert Finney, whose character is only called "Sir") starts lecturing the other actors about their performances. But we get hints that all might not be well when he goes back to his dressing room. His longtime dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay) seems to tend to Sir either more like a mother or possibly a gay lover than an employee of many years. (They're not actual lovers; Sir is married to another member of the company referred to as Her Ladyship, played by Zena Walker).

The company has to take a train to Bradford to perform at their next venue, this time the play being King Lear, a fact that Sir doesn't seem to remember. And he's so full of himself that he takes the company for a leisurely walk down the station platform, forcing Norman to try to get the train from leaving the station. It's yet another sign there's something wrong with Sir.

But the real problems are going to come once they get to Bradford. Sir is in the market square, and suffers some sort of attack that alarms everybody and has him winding up in hospital. Surely the show can't go on with Sir in hospital. But Sir decides that he's going to check himself out against medical advice, and return to the theater which is his one true love. Nobody thinks that Sir can go on, but dammit if Norman isn't going to try, even though Sir seems unable to remember his entrance cue. And even if there's an air-raid.

There's really not much more than that to the plot of The Dresser, being a bit less of a story than a look at the workings of a stage company as well as a character study of Sir and Norman. In that regard, Finney and Courtenay are both excellent, and while both of them got well-deserved Oscar nominations, I think I prefer Courtenay's performance, with Finney's being a bit too over the top at times, possibly a bit of a fault of the script for writing the character that way. The supporting performances are quite good too, notably Eileen Atkins as Madge the stage manager.

If there is one fault with the movie it's that it made me think at times of Finney's following movie, Under the Volcano. Sir's illness/madness, and Finney's portrayal of it, are at times just as uncomfortable to watch as Finney's alcoholic in Under the Volcano, never mind how good the performance is. The Dresser at least doesn't have the idiotic ending that Under the Volcano does.

The Dresser is an excellent movie that rightly got a lot of recognition from critics and the awards bodies when it was released, but for whatever reason doesn't have such recognition today. Well, that might be a bit unfair, as it was based on a stage play and remade as a TV movie a few years back; that one does seem to be in print on DVD. In any case, if you get a chance to catch The Dresser, I strongly recommend it.

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