- Movie Rating -

The Dresser (1983)

| December 2, 1983

I have seen marriages that have functioned pretty much like Sir and Norman in The Dresser.  Norman, a dresser who devotes his life to the care and feeding of Sir, an imperious Shakespearean actor for whom Norman’s dedication is central to his being though he could hardly be bothered to notice.  Norman tends to his meals, his meds, his clothes, his hair, his make-up, his personal functions, and of course, getting him to the stage on time.  Norman (Tom Courtneay) is a dresser and Sir (Albert Finney) as an actor with a manganous self-aggrandizement who has spent his life in the theater but is now tottering into antiquity.  Yes, he is talented beyond words but what would he be without Norman?

In that way, The Dresser is really about a marriage.  I’ve seen wives of equal or lesser value than Norman fussing around with the man in their life.  In this case, circumstances are dire.  The Second World War is raging and Britain is under constant threat by Hitler’s goose-stepping heels.  But, as they say, the show must go on and so does Sir’s touring company. 

Sir is not easy to deal with, he’s getting on in years.  He hits the bottle on occasion and, much to the chagrin of Norman, forgets his lines and often what play he’s performing – at one point he is running the curtain call for “King Lear” and Norman reacts in horror because Sir has applied make-up for “Othello.”  In their banter together we get the sense that Norman knows both roles better than Sir.

What is special about this relationship is that it feels so lived in.  We aren’t watching actors play roles, but rather they seem to occupy them as if they’ve been together for decades.  Norman has a reaction to Sir that never feels like line-readings but feels like that natural flow of dialogue that comes from years of living side-by-side with another person.  When Sir panics about forgetting his life and giving a bad performance, Norman’s reaction seems to well up from years of frustration, of watching this respected actor going to pieces for no reason, particularly at a moment when the world is going to pieces.  What makes his struggle so special?

Underneath their odd union lays a poignant message about how often we tend to forget or ignore those who have our best interest at heart.  What would Sir’s career be without Norman?  Who would tend to him?  There’s a lot of truth in this union, in this marriage if you will, and when the story is over, there is a lot to unpack.  The movie has a great emotional payoff that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

The Dresser is a great film about a great union of two men but it is also a great portrait of life in the theater, of the details of getting a performance off night after night – a struggle when the lead actor’s memory is slipping.  I love the backstage stuff.  I love the supporting players and how they interact.  I love the stagecraft, like the enormous thunder and lightening effects.  I love movies like this, about lives being lived, about a life in a difficult profession at a difficult time.  This is a great movie.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama