*. I came to this movie after watching the 1983 Peter Yates version starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, but also after watching director Richard Eyre’s 2018 adaptation of King Lear with Anthony Hopkins as Lear and Emily Watson (Her Ladyship/Pussy) playing Regan. Since The Dresser is a play that takes place in the wings of a performance of King Lear this seemed more than coincidental, but I don’t know how planned it actually was.
*. I also don’t know how much I’d want to lean on the parallel between King Lear and what’s going on off-stage. Yes, Sir is like Lear in some ways: an elderly tyrant losing his marbles as he loses control of everything else around him. Is Norman the Fool though, as Ian McKellen thought? I mean, there is a real fellow playing the Fool, and it’s a bigger part in this movie than in the 1983 movie. He’s also Edward Fox, who charmingly was in the earlier film as well playing a different character.
*. If Sir is Lear he is also, in this production, more like a modern Lear. That is, less an Old Testament prophet/king than an old man suffering from dementia. This is a lot more obvious in this version than it was in Yates’s film, in large part because Hopkins is an old man (Finney was only 47, so his breakdown never made a lot of sense). I think this production does a good job capturing the pathos of aging and the slide into paranoia, self-pity, and dementia, which is just one of the many sad charms it holds.
*. It’s very much more a studio production, a film of a play, and it actually plays better for it. That’s not something I say very often, but the thing is this isn’t a play that gains anything by being taken outdoors. It’s a small group of people talking in small rooms. Eyre lets them work.
*. And work they do. You’re watching a pair of heavyweights here in Sir Anthony and Sir Ian and they don’t disappoint. McKellen in particular is perfectly on, leaving us to wonder how well Norman, who knows everyone else so well (Ducky!) actually knows himself. He also plays Norman in a far more restrained manner than Courtenay, meaning less flamboyantly gay. Courtenay himself isn’t (as far as I know) gay, and McKellen is, so it’s interesting to compare the two performances in that respect, making me think of the cross-casting in Strangers on a Train.
*. The 1983 version was more of a two-hander. The supporting players get a lot more room here. Or perhaps it just seems that way. I didn’t note their screen time, but Her Ladyship and Madge (Sarah Lancashire, stolid and vulnerable) seem much larger characters.
*. In sum, a production I enjoyed more, and thought much better than, the first version. This isn’t to take anything away from that movie. Courtenay’s performance is powerful in a different way and it strikes some notes a little stronger. But this adaptation strikes me as both quieter, more evocative of its vanished world, and more moving. Though perhaps everyone has their own Dresser and this just suits me better. Fans of the play, and these actors, will want to judge for themselves.