The Dresser (1983)

*. Based on a 1980 play by Ronald Harwood, which was based in turn on Harwood’s own (post-WW2) experiences as dresser to the actor Sir Donald Wolfit. As is often the case with adaptations supervised by the author (Harwood co-produced and wrote the screenplay for this film version) it actually takes more liberties than you might expect in moving beyond being just a filmed version of the play, and some of the location stuff of England being bombed looks really good. Does it add much to the story aside from a nice backdrop? Does it help for us to see Sir having his market meltdown instead of just being told about it? That I’m not so sure about.
*. Also sticking through the jump from stage to screen was Tom Courtenay, who played Norman during the play’s initial theatrical run. Again I wonder if this was the best move. The thing is, my own sense is that Courtenay overplays the role in a manner more fitting on stage than on screen. I do like him in the part, but wonder if director Peter Yates might have wanted him to dial it down a bit.
*. Then again, Courtenay was playing opposite Albert Finney as Sir, and Finney was dialing it up too. I wonder how deliberate this was (I was wondering about a lot of things watching this movie). Yates could excel with actors playing cool. Think of Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But here he wanted large. Like Sir flagging down a train in a station.
*. Adding to this sense that Courtenay and Finney are coming on too strong is the fact of their ages. The play seems to me to be about two elderly figures. Sir, who is at death’s door, is even drawn in a way that suggests dementia. But Finney was only 47 and is too hale and hearty for the part, while Courtenay was roughly the same age. In contrast, when Richard Eyre did a TV version in 2015 he did it with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen in the leads. Hopkins and McKellen are roughly the same age as Finney and Courtenay, but their version was made over 30 years later, when they were in their mid- to late-70s. Is 77 the new 47? I don’t think things have reached that point yet.

*. I prefer the 2015 version, but think this one is definitely watchable. Of course it was catnip for critics and got all sorts of awards attention. Even though I don’t really see it as a play “about” the theatre world so much as being about codependent relationships. Norman is more of a nurse than a dresser, utterly committed to propping Sir up and keeping him going, perhaps feeling that this gives him a kind of power. The kind of power one attains by debasing himself before his idol. I like the scene where Sir makes him go out in front of the audience to make an address. Does Sir see this as a punishment? Does he relish Norman’s humiliation? And does Norman enjoy it a bit himself? After all, imagine him going on the same stage as Sir!
*. Roger Ebert saw the dynamic at work clearly: “Much of mankind is divided into two categories, the enablers and the enabled. Both groups accept the same mythology, in which the enablers are self-sacrificing martyrs and the enabled are egomaniacs. But the roles are sometimes reversed; the stars are shaken by insecurities that are subtly encouraged by enablers who, in their heart of hearts, see themselves as the real stars. It’s human nature.” So Norman is upset that he doesn’t get so much as a mention in the dedication of Sir’s memoirs. But is his anger heartfelt? There is a masochism that drives the codependent personality. They want to be used, and Norman is. His only reward is to be taken for granted.
*. I think that downbeat message fits with the anticlimactic ending here. I’ll confess that when I first saw it I was surprised when the credits rolled. Was that it? But I think that abruptness makes the point. With Sir gone, that’s really all there is. Norman doesn’t have a story of his own. What will he do now? Is there anyone left who cares?

14 thoughts on “The Dresser (1983)

  1. film-authority.com

    Looks like you’ve accidentally used some of your holiday snaps as illustrations for this piece; I guess the story of a unfortunate sidekick living in the shadow of a huge, acclaimed talent must resonate with your personally, Alex?

    Reply
      1. film-authority.com

        Sigh. Some of us are destined for great things, dear boy, others have a duty to flail around in the background like jellyfish and youself.

        This film should have been about a killer Dresser, a proper horror movie about possessed furniture. Missed opportunity.

  2. Over-The-Shoulder

    Ooh, this sounds good. The theme of the film sounds very interesting – perhaps more interesting than the film itself. The 2015 version also sounds watchable (but only because it has Hopkins in it). Great review, Mr Good!

    Reply
  3. Bookstooge

    Is there anyone left who cares?

    No there isn’t. It’s cold, cruel world out there.

    How do you feel about plays being turned into movies? In general I mean. I don’t care for it myself, unless there is a book as the inspiration and thus the story can be lifted from that. When the story starts life as a play, it seems to focus on the stage and the whole “live action” instead of what a movie leans into.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      The problem they have is that in making the jump from stage to screen they have to decide what’s not going to work and what they’re going to have to adapt. Some filmed plays look like just that, and they’re worse for it. But the best find ways to improve the stage experience with things that can only be done on screen. But they can also go too far and lose track of what made the play successful. It’s a real balancing act.

      Reply

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