Thursday, November 14, 2013

FI: The Dresser

The Dresser
UK, 1983
Directed by Peter Yates

I'm not sure what would qualify a movie as un film de Peter Yates, considering how wide-ranging his films were in tone and genre. While his best-known pictures are the grim, taciturn crime films Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, neither of those has much in common with his bizarre sci-fi/fantasy epic Krull, released the same year as the The Dresser, which is nothing at all like any of them. A touching, largely two-man story set in the world of the theater during the Blitz, The Dresser sees Albert Finney as a Shakespearean troupe's bombastic, domineering lead actor, known only as "Sir." His age and the horrors of nightly air raids have conspired to rob him of his mental health to such an extent that no-one in the company is sure the night's performance of King Lear will go on. The one person who has a chance of getting Sir ready is his doting dresser, Norman (Sir Tom Courtenay), who alone is willing to take the brunt of Sir's upbraiding, but who can also talk to him in a way that no-one else can get away with. Their Lear-and-Fool relationship sits at the film's center and is the engine that powers everything else we see on screen.

The film is, first and foremost, an acting showcase for its central duo (both of whom received Best Actor Oscar noms for their work). Ronald Harwood's Oscar-nominated screenplay, based on his own stage play, puts them through their paces, with Finney having to play a mad old tyrant playing a mad old tyrant, no easy task. But his Sir is so fragile, and so codependent with Courtenay's dainty, obsequious Norman, that neither man seems capable of being alone any longer. Yet there's still a distance between them, one that is apparent whenever the film lays bare the class-related imbalances inherent to their dynamic. The work's theatrical origins are apparent in the film's construction, with its long scenes set in a single location—probably two thirds of the film takes place in Sir's dressing room—and precisely-crafted dialogue. Yates doesn't attempt to hide the piece's theatricality, though neither does he allow The Dresser to become a filmed play. He uses framing, movement, and light to direct our attention within the confines of the space without being flashy and overshadowing the work of his stars. He also makes a good fist of the scenes that show Lear in performance, with all of their attendant meta-acting within the film's world.

The Dresser touches on the "show must go on" side of creative endeavors, and the power of art to protect against even the onslaught of war. There's also something elegiac here about the last of a breed of actors built for a certain type of theater, one that the modern post-WWII world would largely leave behind. The film derives much of its power from the theater and from the ways the onstage drama and madness tends to seep into the lives of the cast and crew, though Norman's frustrated encouragement of Sir and disappointment in Sir's lapses will feel familiar to anyone who has had the disheartening experience of watching a loved one lose themselves in a mental disorder or Alzheimer's. The Dresser is hardly the first or last work to suggest that a performance sometimes benefits from madness—the great Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows often dealt with the same thing—or that performers literally give everything they have to their art. But through Sir and Norman's relationship and the world-beating performances of the leads, these tropes get enough extra depth and poignancy to carry the film through its doldrums.

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