[box cover]

The Dresser

Drawing on his own experience as the assistant to actor Sir Donald Wolfit in the 1950's, Ronald Harwood's script for The Dresser (1983) is packed with the kind of intimate detail that should thrill theater aficionados. For the uninitiated, however, Peter Yates's stiffly directed backstage drama might be a tad distancing, while the blustery lead performances by British screen legends Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, as "Sir" and his dresser Norman respectively, might seem annoyingly overplayed. Set against the dispiriting, bombed-out backdrop of a blitzed England during World War II, The Dresser depicts the travails of a touring acting troupe led by the senile Sir as they attempt to offer their audiences an escape from the oppressive, surrounding bleakness. Now that Sir has fallen more deeply into derangement, this once-routine task is suddenly more difficult than ever, and the full weight of pulling it all off falls on the sunken shoulders of the buoyantly effeminate Norman, whose tireless coddling and admonishing of Sir leaves little room for a life of his own. Appropriately, Sir's almost complete mental breakdown dovetails with a performance of King Lear, one which the no-nonsense stage manager Madge (Eileen Atkins) would just as soon scuttle. But Norman, in between nerve-calming swigs of brandy, assures Madge that he can coach Sir through what will be the geriatric actor's 227th performance of Shakespeare's mad king. It's a literally thankless task for Norman, who must endure Sir's petulant raging and unpredictable mood swings as he readies him for the rapidly approaching rise of the curtain. In many ways, Norman's job is a performance in itself; to keep Sir alert, he sings, dances, and shares humorous anecdotes as if putting on a cabaret act. Meanwhile, Norman must keep the other actors' morale from flagging, while also keeping a comely and opportunistic young female stage hand from clouding Sir's head with baser yearnings. Despite a few quiet moments in the early going, Harwood's script for The Dresser is essentially one production-threatening complication after another, and the anxious tone is sometimes tiring. It's as if he's afraid to waste a single incident from his own harrowing experiences. What he sacrifices in the process, though, by employing such an episodic structure is Norman's poignant throughline, which arrives coldly at what should be a heartbreaking conclusion. Still, it's hard to complain when one has just watched two of England's finest film actors wage war at a fevered pitch for two vibrantly performed hours. Finney and Courtenay, who received Oscar nominations for their work here, are both clearly enjoying themselves, and while some may charge these two with excessive scenery chewing, one has to assume that they've never been involved in a professional theater production. Making drama is drama, and what happens backstage often dwarfs what's happening on stage. Though it winds up being thematically undernourished, the film is still a vastly enjoyable character piece with refreshingly unobtrusive direction from Yates. Columbia TriStar presents The Dresser in an average anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that obviously was struck from a less-than-pristine print. The serviceable audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0. Extras include theatrical trailers for other Sony product. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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