September 6, 2010
We watched the 1983 film “The Dresser,” which was based on Ronald Harwood’s play of the same name, a critical success in both London and New York. Alfred Finney and Tom Courtenay star in the movie, and Courtenay played the same part — to applause each time — on the London and New York stages.
The story focuses on the relationship between an aging and rapidly unraveling Shakespearean actor referred to only by the name “Sir” (Finney), and an effeminate man named Norman (Courtenay), who is responsible for the most minute and intimate needs of the overbearing performer. Sir leads a troupe of
actors who persevere in performing Shakespeare’s plays — “Macbeth” one night, “Richard III” the next — in England during the blitz.
As the company copes with the grueling schedule, the pressure of the bombing raids, and their intramural tensions, Sir is coming apart at the seams. The film catches up to him as he arrives at a London theater for a week of performances beginning with “King Lear.”
Sir snaps in public. Norman, fortified by the pint he keeps in his back pocket, and by a loyalty that by now only he can understand, works feverishly to coax Sir back from the border of madness while staving off the theater manager’s instinct that the performance should be cancelled.
This film has a good deal of dark comedy on the parts of Finney and Courtenay as well as some of the supporting cast. The roles of Sir and Norman are the type that invite the actors to jump in head first, and neither actor is reluctant to do so. Both of their performances are convincing and disturbing.
“The Dresser” is not an upper, but it’s one to put on your list.