Contrary to what Judge Amanda DeWees expected, this drama about an aging Shakespearean actor has nothing to do with furniture.
"There was a time when I painted in all the lines [on my face]. Now I merely deepen what is already there."—Sir (Albert Finney)
In a time that now seems distant, traveling theatrical repertory ("rep") companies under the aegis of actor-managers like Laurence Olivier were a common phenomenon. Moving from town to town, performing a constantly revolving roster of great plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Shaw, they formed a subculture all their own. Banding together in a shared passion for theater that often denied them settled lives and domestic ties, they became a family, albeit a temporary one, for the duration of the tour. Yet some of the relationships forged among actors and backstage crew became stronger than those of blood or passion. This movie, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, tells the story of one such relationship.
Facts of the Case
Air raid sirens are wailing. England is being bombed. But the audience members still file into the theater, and the show—although no one amid this group of veteran thespians is jejune enough to use the hackneyed phrase—must go on. That is, if Sir (Albert Finney, Big Fish) can pull himself together in time to go onstage in his 227th performance as Shakespeare's King Lear.
Sir (known by no other name) is their employer, their star, their manager—one might as well say their king. He can be a tyrannical ruler, as when he intones derision at other actors as he lies "dead" on stage, but recently the power of the crown seems to be weakening. He has strange fits of forgetfulness and sudden violent outbursts, and his aging body is beginning to weaken. Only his dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay, Nicholas Nickleby), the staff member who attends to Sir's makeup, costume, tea, bath, and post-performance tipple, is able to soothe and strengthen him during these episodes. But Sir's emotional problems are growing worse, exacerbated by the toll the war is taking on his sense of stature as an actor.
Will Norman be able to prop Sir up so that he can perform tonight? The entire company depends on it. For if Sir can no longer perform, all in his little kingdom—from the actors to the sound technicians to the stage manager—will find themselves out of work, and these people who have grown to rely on each other emotionally as well as financially will be scattered to the four winds. The fate of their tiny world rests in Norman's hands, and on Sir's stooped shoulders.
Based on the hit stage play by Ronald Harwood, which in turn was inspired by his own experiences as a dresser to such notable actor-managers as Sir Donald Wolfit (the inspiration for the character of Sir), The Dresser is an actor's film in many senses of the term. The shabby backstage world of a World War II-era acting company is evoked in detail, from the wigs and greasepaint to the trough full of dried peas used to create sound effects of rain. The older actors gossip, seek reassurance from each other on their performances, complain about their costumes, and reminisce about grander days. The younger generation, represented by Edward Fox as the contemptuous Oxenby, waits impatiently for this old guard to die out so that the new wave of theatrical realism can sweep away the petrified traditions represented by stars like Sir. Anyone who has ever spent any time in a community theater will recognize the carping, the gossip, the longing to land the role that will finally show the audience just how good they are. As with any group forced into close, sustained contact in service of a shared goal, the actors form alliances, forge enmities, and nurse grievances—and all of them would rather be here than anywhere else. These are people who believe with utter conviction that theater tickets will bring a ray of hope into the lives of people who have been bombed out of their homes.
The head of this sometimes dysfunctional family is, of course, Sir. An acclaimed actor, whose name can still fill seats, he is now of an age where his body and mind betray him. His grip on reality—and on the affairs of all the people who rely on him—is becoming tenuous. His actress wife, known respectfully as Her Ladyship, is kind but baffled. She recognizes that it is Norman, who has been with Sir for 16 years, who truly understands how to take care of him.
The dresser's relationship with Sir seems to echo the British tradition of military officers and their batmen, servants who looked after them and their belongings, a tradition J. R. R. Tolkien drew upon when creating the relationship of Sam and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings saga. Although of a lower social class than their masters, the batmen were usually fiercely loyal and devoted to the officers they served, and the two men often formed the kind of bond that only shared suffering and combat can forge. Similar to one of these batmen during times of war, Courtenay's character cares lovingly for Sir, preparing him to walk onstage each night and pampering him after each performance is through. He and Sir are, in a sense, comrades in arms, fighting shoulder to shoulder in the hardscrabble world of rep theater against a world that doesn't properly respect or remunerate them. Paradoxically, he almost becomes a kind of parent to his "superior": Both hectoring and cajoling, Norman seems to know when it amuses, and even comforts, the old man to be babied. Sir's episodes of fragility can suddenly become outbursts of anger and vituperation, however, whereupon he will reassert his status as the one giving the orders. Despite such eruptions, the two men exist in a harmony of long acquaintance and deep understanding, a kind of marriage, if you will, that allows Sir to take Norman for granted but makes him helpless without this attendant.
Sir and Norman present a dramatic contrast, both physically and temperamentally. In Sir's lucid moments, Albert Finney captures all of the bombast, pomposity, and grandeur of a star actor secure in his status. Finney was still in his 40s at the time this film was released, yet he convincingly portrays a much older man. Physically substantial, almost beefy, he creates a big presence with his booming voice, yet is wrenchingly convincing in evoking Sir's frailty and helplessness: We can almost see him shrinking inside his body, and the great voice dwindles to a broken whimper. In other moments, Sir's assured sense of self-worth creates some of the funniest episodes in the film, as when he stops a train by sheer force of authority or marvels that the Axis forces would actually bomb the theater in which he made his stage debut. (Norman, without a hint of irony, assures him that "They weren't to know," and Sir concedes the point.) We also get to see glimpses of other sides of Sir: a sly paternalism in a tête-à-tête with an ambitious young actress, which he will manipulate to serve his own (unexpected) ends, and a bashful tenderness toward Madge (Eileen Atkins, Gosford Park), the loyal stage manager whose tough exterior protects a sorrow that Sir understands and honors. Sir may be difficult to love, but oh, what a fascinating character he is to watch. Moments like the scene with Atkins, and glimpses of his breathtaking performance as Lear, make us realize how much the world is losing with this man's decline. Sir is larger than life, and Finney—who was nominated for an Oscar for this performance—masterfully rises to the challenge of making him real. It's a standout performance in a career notable for strong work
Also nominated for an Oscar, Tom Courtenay as Norman is a strikingly different personality. Younger and wirier than his charge, talking a mile a minute and singing during his chores, he nonetheless shows a careworn, weary face, and he drinks on the sly. Years of coping with Sir's temperament, his neediness, and his casual condescension will certainly do that to a person. Norman also faces the hurdle of being a gay man in England in the 1940s, where men are still jailed for homosexuality (as we are reminded by the gap left by one of the company's actors). In the theater company, Norman finds an acceptance that would not be granted in the world at large: Sir may (and does) deploy hurtful stereotypes against gay actors in the company, but he hired them himself, and he is shocked at the idea of their being jailed. Norman's job also permits him to experience the excitement of theatrical life even though he was evidently unable to achieve success as an actor: Despite his gift for mimicry and memorization, he suffers stage fright so debilitating that he tangles up a simple public service announcement (with hilarious effect). As the dresser, he gets to participate in the theater nonetheless and enjoy its vicarious triumphs and defeats. By turns Sir's nanny, cheerleader, confidant, and strong right hand, Norman entertains Sir with his impressions, slaps his hand when he uses the wrong makeup, and yet fights with desperate ferocity to convince everyone that Sir can and will perform tonight. It seems to be as much Norman's strength of will as Sir's lingering instinct for performing that gets the aged actor into character and on stage.
I was deeply relieved to see this lesser-known British film granted a widescreen transfer. That being said, the speckling and occasional grain, and the softness of some black areas, are less of a pleasure. The Dresser is filmed in the faded, dingy palette of wartime Britain, however, so there isn't a lot of color contrast, and the overall result is certainly respectable if not pristine. Audio is beautifully clear, with no ambient hiss at all, although some tweaking of volume levels would have been welcome in moments when voices dramatically drop below hearing range. Viewers baffled by these moments, not to mention the orotund tones and rolled R's of theatrical elocution, will probably welcome the subtitles. James Horner's score, which makes effective use of a boy choir to lend an elegiac quality to the film, deserves mention.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The British seem to have a particular gift for placing comedy and pathos side by side; we've seen this duality in more recent films such as Brassed Off and The Full Monty, and it is definitely in evidence here. The quality of pathos, however, is so excruciating in this film that it is almost unbearable to watch at times. Particularly for those who have seen loved ones fall victim to Alzheimer's and similar mental disorders, Sir's instances of pathetic confusion and helplessness, shifting abruptly to rage and violence, are all too realistic. It's a harrowing depiction of a person disappearing into illness.
I also found myself wincing at the extent to which Courtenay's Norman portrays all the most exaggerated gay mannerisms. I realize that his characterization may be accurate for the time and place of the film's setting and even in 1983 when the movie was made these mannerisms might not have been so offensive, but in 2004 this performance veers dangerously close to camp. This complicates our reaction to his character, I think: Norman is in no way intended to mock or deride homosexuality; he is, after all, the title character and in a sense our surrogate. But all his limp-wristed fluttering and skipping (yes, skipping) is unpleasantly like caricature. I'm not sure if the director, the script, or the actor is responsible for this approach to the character, but it is a part of the performance that I don't think has aged well. Taking down the mannerisms a few notches could have preserved our awareness of Norman's homosexuality while lessening the risk of his looking ridiculous.
Norman is also a character, I must admit, I find it hard to like. Despite his loyalty and devotion, he is far from being a saint: He's petulant, self-pitying, and sometimes just plain bitchy. He is even perversely proud of the sometimes demeaning services he performs for Sir, using them to score points off an actress who presumes to know Sir better than he does. He certainly has earned the right to be every one of these things, and there's a valid argument to be made that putting someone else's welfare so completely above considerations of self may bring out the worst in a caregiver as well as the best. Norman's actions aren't selfless, however. It's impossible to ignore the sense in which his heroic efforts to convince everyone of Sir's fitness to perform—including Sir himself—are a desperate attempt to hang on to his own job. Norman's devotion to Sir may be paramount in his thoughts, but as long as Sir can take the stage, his dresser will have a place, even a degree of status, in the troupe. Moreover, continuing to act may indeed keep Sir from losing what remains of his mental faculties, as Norman believes, but it also takes a terrible toll on him. Courtenay won the Golden Globe as Norman, and I can't deny that it's a powerhouse of a performance. But Finney's Sir is the character who evoked my pity, whereas Norman merely evoked my sympathy.
Finally, I have to say I am irritated at the lack of real extras. We get trailers for two other Albert Finney movies, plus a wholly unrelated one. I didn't expect a retrospective featurette, but it would have been nice to have had at least the movie's own trailer, or some kind of case insert. No such luck.
The flawed, difficult duo at the heart of The Dresser are frequently challenging, but they are brought to life in such powerful performances that we can't help but feel grateful for having known them. This is also a film that can convey even to nontheatrical people the thrill of being involved in live drama, as in the scene where, against his intention, supercilious Oxenby comes to the aid of Norman and Her Ladyship as they throw themselves into ever greater contortions to produce storm sound effects loud enough to satisfy Sir. For every exhilarating moment of fellowship like this one, however, there is also the horror known to every actor when someone misses a cue, and this, too, is brought to life so convincingly that we as viewers can't help but squirm during the awkward silence that stretches on and on as Sir sits catatonic in the wings. Such victories and disasters are not the stuff of real life, not for most of us. But The Dresser makes them feel real and important. That's a legacy that Sir would be proud of.
As Sir would remind us, the quality of mercy is not strained, so the court dismisses all charges. We're adjourned.
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