When I first saw the film version of The Dresser in 1983, based on the stage play by Ronald Harwood, starring Tom Courtney as Norman, the Dresser (below, R), and Albert Finney as Sir (below L), the fading and ailing stage-star, I was very moved by the unrequited love involving all the principals.
Though I was obviously much younger during the screening of the first, award-winning film of The Dresser, I was certainly looking forward to seeing some of my favorite actors in the Starz-BBC remake. Anthony Hopkins as the senile and ailing leader of a third-rate acting troupe, Sir; Ian McKellan as his Dresser, Norman; Emily Watson as Sir’s common-law “wife” and stage co-star, Her Ladyship; and Edward Fox in a small but powerful role as Lear’s Fool; all promised to make this a memorable visit to the backstage and dressing-room world of theatre during World War II. Alas, though most of the performances were understated and subtle, some of the production values were less than wonderful, and some of the interpretations of the characters were too over-the-top to be as effective as they were in the original film.
Sir (Anthony Hopkins, above R) is clearly having difficulties that he can no longer hide from the other members of the acting troupe, including his common-law wife, Her Ladyship (Emily Watson), who urges him to announce his retirement after the night’s performance,
and the troupe’s stage manager, Madge (Sarah Lancashire), who urges him to let her cancel the show if he can’t go on.
Sir’s long-time Dresser, Norman (Ian McKellan, below, standing), however, insists that Sir can perform, that Sir’s just a little tired, and that Norman himself has plenty of time before the curtain goes up to get Sir ready, once again, for the stage.
Norman continually insists that the show can go on despite the fact that Sir simply cannot remember the first line of the play and asks for it repeatedly, that he puts on the wrong make-up (for Othello, in a rather gruesome, decidedly unhumorous black-face moment), and cannot recall what tonight’s play is (King Lear). Despite Sir’s initial inability to recall his lines just before going on stage, Sir eventually gives the performance of his career, which may not be saying much considering that his “wife” Her Ladyship calls him a “third-rate actor” not a “Colossus” conquering the world.
Most of The Dresser is set in the intimate, almost claustrophobic arena of Sir’s dressing room, with other actors coming in and out to discuss their discontents, their ambitions, and maneuvering their way around Sir’s “political” position as the head of the troupe. Her Ladyship, tired of the grueling routine of the troupe, which must perform a different Shakespeare play each night, wants Sir to retire at the conclusion of the night’s performance. When Her Ladyship is not urging him to retire, she’s bitterly complaining about the fact that neither her personal nor her professional life, both intimately connected to Sir, has turned out the way she’d expected.
Irene, the young ingenue (Vanessa Kirby, below), attempts to “seduce” Sir, in what Dr. Zaius of Den of Geeks calls the “strangest faux-seduction” scene ever, in her ploy to replace Her Ladyship as the female star of the troupe. Actually, the scene seemed well-done to me, given Sir’s supposed age, physical frailty, illness, and impending death. Sir insists that Irene, whose name he cannot recall, lift her outfit so he can examine her legs, then he grabs them, commenting on the fact that she’s rather thin, then lifts her, shouting something about that’s the way it should be (he’s constantly complaining about all the weight that Her Ladyship has gained over the years, yet she still plays Cordelia in King Lear and Sir has to carry her onto the stage whenever they perform the play). In short, with the young, ambitious ingenue, Sir’s spirit is willing, but his flesh cannot complete the seduction: he must settle for grabbing her upper thighs and for lifting the younger actor in his arms, instead of having intercourse with her in his dressing room during the show’s Interlude.
Sir may have a passion for the ladies, but it’s Norman who has the greatest passion for Sir, unrequited though it obviously is, especially given the story’s time setting. In the original version of the film, I didn’t realize that Norman was actually in love with Sir. I knew the Dresser was attached to the aging actor, that Norman felt his own position was insecure if anything happened to Sir, and that Norman felt unappreciated — most of the time. Norman’s somewhat bitter but still poignant revelation that he loves Sir as much as any of the females in Sir’s life was, in the 1983 film, startling and emotional in a way that, no doubt, earned Courtney the Oscar nomination and the BAFTA award as Supporting Actor.
In the new BBC version, shown by Starz, Norman’s final revelation that he loves Sir as much as anyone else, if not more because Norman’s love is hidden and unrequited, was barely audible, and, unfortunately, it had none of the punch and surprise that the original 1983 film version had.
This may be, as Noel Murray of AVclub writes, a “sign of our more progressive times.” But it may also be due to the poorer production qualities of the 2016 version, in which many of the actors’ lines, especially McKellan’s and Hopkins’, were mumbled or otherwise inaudible and unclear. It may also be due to McKellan’s reinterpretation of the role: his Norman was more obviously gay — less nannyish and more campy — and his love for Sir seemed obvious even to Sir himself. That wasn’t true in the 1983 film, where Norman’s final revelation was startling and emotional.
One of the 2016 The Dresser‘s best performances was by Edward Fox as Geoffrey, who has been called in to play The Fool in Lear after losing the troupe’s original actor. Berated by Sir for constantly getting between Sir and the spotlights, Fox’s Fool was visibly shaken and tyrannized. As Tim Goodman of Hollywood Reporter writes, Geoffrey is “another member of the troupe who, like Norman, was initially hired as ‘play-as-cast’ actors — meaning they would play whatever they were told to play, but always lesser roles — both [come] to terms with their lessened dreams.”
After the show, however, when Geoffrey reveals how thrilled and excited he was at being able to turn in a strong performance, and how he would like to be considered for larger roles, if there ever are any, while Sir listens — clearly bored — and Norman silently stands there — obviously having heard this speech many times before — Fox gave one of the best speeches of the evening. Halting and hesitant, rambling and nervous, cowed and intimidated, Fox’s Fool and his Geoffrey were powerful, indeed.
Though Hopkins was consistently strong in the role of Sir, his lines were sometimes difficult to make out. I had to simply guess what was going on. And I’d already seen the film in 1983. This was the major flaw in the current production: if the viewers can’t hear the lines, the story loses much of its effect.
The Dresser is a story about actors playing actors putting on a stage-play, which I usually dislike almost as much as books about writers writing books about writers, but the relatively strong performances by the entire 2016 cast make it an interesting story, even if it’s lost the punch of the final “daring” Reveal: Norman’s “semi-subversive” love for another man, who’s his employer besides, the ailing and dying Sir.
Unfortunately, true to Her Ladyship’s continuous complaints and accusations, Sir cares for no one but himself.
Certainly not for his devoted and loyal Dresser, Norman.