If you can’t make it to London’s West End to see a play, watching The Dresser on Starz may well be the next best thing. It features two acting heavyweights in Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, appearing alongside one another for — inconceivably — the very first time. The Dresser, based on a 1980s play by Richard Harwood (which was later made into a feature film in 1983) aired on the BBC last fall, with Starz now carrying it for American audiences — who may find some of the regional accents a little difficult to suss out.
Often the biggest challenge in adapting a stage play into a movie is making it not feel like a stage play. But director Richard Eyre isn’t interested in that convention, and because of that The Dresser feels exactly like we’re watching it unfold on the stage (there’s a lot of telling and not much showing). Eyre does use his small spaces wisely, though, employing a great number of close-ups and visual nuances, with the camera hovering as close as it can to make us feel at one with the players. But given The Dresser’s sad story, I’m not entirely sure we want to be that close.
The Dresser focuses on a traveling Shakespeare company in the 1940s whose tyrannical (yet supremely talented) star (Hopkins) is unravelling. Whether it’s some kind of dementia, or Alzheimer’s, or just exhaustion, death is sidling up to Sir (as he is called), and he wrestles with it in the hour before and after his performance as King Lear. He’s attended to by his faithful dresser, Norman (McKellen), an alcoholic and artistic wannabe who is nevertheless utterly devoted to Sir. He is Sir’s friend, servant, mother figure, and whatever else he requires.
Sir’s long-suffering wife, Her Ladyship (Emily Watson), as well as the troupe’s plain-spoken stage manager Madge (Sarah Lancashire), want to call off the play, citing Sir’s inability to hold himself together, remember lines, or (later) wanting to go forth with it himself. But Norman insists that this too shall pass, and Sir will be up for the challenge like always.
The Dresser unfolds as a series of conversations, with the bombastic Sir — a relic of an earlier age given to fits of oratory — settling accounts, as Norman buzzes around him like a helpful housefly, having a story for every occasion that always begins with, “I have a friend who …” There are brief but comical appearances from Edward Fox and Tom Brooke, and the stage makeup (on Fox especially) is particularly ghoulish, heightening the dour, dramatic atmosphere.
Sir laments that the company cannot attract younger actors, as they are all off to war, with Fox quipping that the war has providing “unexpected employment opportunities.” Such is the sly humor embedded in The Dresser, with the effeminate and increasingly sloshed Norman dancing as fast as he can to keep Sir from stumbling. “There’s danger in covering up the cracks,” Sir says to him about his emotional state after openly weeping, explaining that he can’t always be strong. “It’s not about covering up the cracks so much as covering up the wig joints,” Norman retorts as he fusses with Sir’s costuming; meanwhile, air raid sirens howl and bombs drop close enough to shake the theater’s foundations.
The Dresser is a story of friendship, at least from one side (the ending is particularly heart-breaking for a number of reasons — in fact, the entire thing is pretty depressing), as well as a swan song to the changing of the theater guard. Sir is in the limelight here, as he is on stage, but Norman bookends the story, with a few particularly emotional episodes from Lancashire and Watson in between. The TV movie is very much a character study, and it does the most with its small scope (even if, ultimately, it feels a little overlong). Yet by the end you feel you know Sir as well as anyone — for better or worse.
The Dresser is not for everyone. If you’re predisposed to liking a dramatic stage play and acting showcase, you’ll adore it. If you aren’t, I’m not sure it’s going to win any new fans. It does what it does lovingly, but it’s definitely of niche interest. Still, it’s a wonderful illustration of spacial restraint. Eyre has told an epic, emotionally-charged story in 2 hours that took place in, essentially, two rooms. Yet as the final curtain closes, we are indeed ready to leave.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Dark, distinct, depressing
The Dresser premieres Monday, May 30th on Starz