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As German planes strafe England during World War II, a ragtag team of Shakespearean actors travels from town to town performing the Bard's greatest works. The nation's best actors are away fighting the Germans, and the actors left are less than extraordinary, performing as bomb raid sirens interrupt their plays.
The Dresser (1983) opens with the aging, dignified actor/manager of that traveling theater company, referred to as "Sir" (Albert Finney), playing Shakespeare's Othello. An actor's actor, Sir's vocal and physical presence are so commanding, he is able to literally halt the British rail service by demanding that a train leaving the station without him stop.
As the curtain drops, Sir reveals his true colors, berating the actors who have upstaged, confounded him or, from his perspective, interfered with his performance as Othello.
"Old men, cripples and nancy boys," he shrieks of his fellow thespians. But he saves his greatest scorn for Norman (Tom Courtenay), the effeminate, devoted, theater-obsessed helpmate who prepares Sir's make-up and draws his bath. In especially difficult times, when Sir's fragile mental state is exacerbated by alcohol or stress, Norman finds him raving in the city streets. Always the concerned servant, Norman leads him back to the safety of the theater to prepare for that evening's performance of "King Lear" at a provincial theater, a role Sir is playing for the 227th time. Though the theater manager Madge (Eileen Atkins) believes Sir should be committed, it is Norman who argues on his behalf, convinced that a life off the stage would kill Sir.
A story about a devout love of theater, an unlikely, difficult friendship and the transcendence it offers in hard times, The Dresser is also a character study and portrait of the strangely intimate bond between Sir and Norman. Much of The Dresser's appeal comes from how well it conveys the backstage life and the lore and legends of the theater.
The Dresser was adapted from Ronald Harwood's successful 1980 play starring Freddie Jones as Sir (replaced by Paul Rogers in the Broadway version) and Courtenay (Billy Liar, 1963; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1962) as Norman.
The play was nominated for Best Play for the Laurence Olivier Awards of 1980 and was based on Harwood's own experiences as a dresser for the famous Shakespearian actor Donald Wolfit; he won acclaim for his performance of "King Lear" and went on to be knighted for his theater work.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Harwood would go on to write numerous books and screenplays including The Pianist (2002) for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, Being Julia (2004) and the forthcoming Australia (2008).
The Dresser was nominated for five Academy Awards. National Review said of the film, that it was "one of those rare cases where a movie version, in this case Ronald Harwood's adaptation of his own undistinguished play, is better than the stage original."
Director Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968; Breaking Away, 1979) will soon direct another adaptation of a Ronald Harwood work, the forthcoming The Girl in Melanie Klein also starring Tom Courtenay and Eileen Atkins.
An actor who also specialized in playing Shakespearean roles onscreen, Finney was originally cast for the lead in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He turned the part down that eventually went to Peter O'Toole because he didn't want to commit to such a lengthy production. He instead chose to take the lead in Tom Jones (1963) for which he received his first of four Oscar® nominations.
Along with his The Dresser co-star Courtenay, Finney was one of the actors who helped define the revolutionary British New Wave of the '50s and '60s with films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).
Only 47 when he played Sir, Finney is utterly convincing as a far older man. Pauline Kael called him "juicy, with a thundering voice and wonderful false humility."
Director: Peter Yates
Producer: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood
Cinematography: Kelvin Pike
Production Design: Stephen Grimes
Music: James Horner
Cast: Albert Finney (Sir), Tom Courtenay (Norman), Edward Fox (Oxenby), Zena Walker (Her Ladyship), Eileen Atkins (Madge), Michael Gough (Frank Carrington).
by Felicia Feaster