Following on from Breaking Away, Peter Yates’ other Best Picture nominee from the 1980s demonstrated his versatility. From the cycling-themed coming-of-age film he previously delivered, his adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser was different in almost every conceivable way.
The Dresser follows a struggling Shakespearian company who continue to put on productions despite the Blitz being in full effect. The company has been cut quite dramatically due to the war and is ruled over by its often dictatorial star simply known here as ‘Sir’. The majority of the film centres around the company’s production of King Lear during which ‘Sir’ is set to play the lead role. However, the day of the performance, he has a breakdown in the street and is hospitalised leading us to believe the he is suffering from senility. The majority of the cast and crew feel that the show should be cancelled and that ‘Sir’ is in no fit state to be on the stage. The only person who wants the show to go on is our leading man’s ‘dresser’ Norman, an effeminate Northerner who has devoted his life to looking after his idol. Norman is essentially the Smithers to Sir’s Mr Burns and is jealous of the affection that he gets from others. He also hates it when people are mean towards ‘Sir’, often believing him to be past his sell-by-date and living-in-the-past. This is especially true of Oxenby, a younger actor feels he should be part of the group. Over the course of the film we see King Lear played out with ‘Sir’ dishing out some home truths and Norman hoping his idol can light up the stage one more time. For me, the major problem with the film is the ending, which I felt was a little too over-the-top however there’s not much that Yates could do if that’s how the play ended.
As is the case with a lot of plays that become films, The Dresser isn’t overly cinematic seeing as its primarily set in a theatre. There are some early exterior scenes, including a great set piece at a train station, but once ‘Sir’ returns from hospital then everything else is indoors. With Ronald Harwood adapting his own play, the script is incredibly tight and really showcases the backstage politics in local theatre. Harwood’s main strength is in the creation of the two characters of ‘Sir’ and Norman both of whom feel incredibly human. Despite both appearing to be difficult to deal with, Harwood ensures we have a huge amount of sympathy for each of them. As we can see he’s suffering from senility, ‘Sir’ is somebody who goes from grand posturing on stage to behaving like a scared child in his dressing room. Meanwhile Norman is somebody who cares for the theatre so much that sometimes he can get incredibly nasty. What made the film for me though was the performances from Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay who sparkle as ‘Sir’ and Norman respectively. Finney is incredibly convincing as the ageing actor, he was only in his forties at the time, and his sensitive portrayal of the actor’s dementia is incredibly moving. Courtenay has the harder role but is absolutely astounding, instantly portraying Norman’s role as we see him by Finney’s side. Both Finney and Courtenay were nominated for Best Actor but lost out to the deserving Robert Duvall; however Courtenay did tie with Duvall for the prize at the Golden Globes. Though I found it funny and moving at times, I thought The Dresser didn’t really showcase Peter Yates’ directorial skills as much as some of his other features. This was obviously a labour of love for Yates and he did create a memorable film with two magnificent performances however it was never a film that astounded me visually.