The Dresser

by Glenn Erickson Apr 02, 2024
Directed by Peter Yates and performed with great finesse by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his own play is great entertainment. Touring the provinces in wartime, an eccentric Shakespearian legend is falling apart in mind and body; only the star’s dedicated, put-upon dresser can get him into a mental shape allowing the show to go on. The approach isn’t satirical or ironic, but affecting and compassionate. The freqently hilarious show is also a worthwhile account of a long-gone slice of British theatrical history.

The Dresser
Viavision [Imprint] #290
1983 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 118 min. / Street Date February 28, 2024 / Available from [Imprint] / Aud 39.95
Starring: Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox, Zena Walker, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gough, Cathryn Harrison, Betty Marsden, Sheila Reid, Lockwood West, Donald Eccles, Llewellyn Rees, Guy Manning, Anne Mannion, Kevin Stoney, Ann Way.
Cinematography: Kelvin Pike
Production Designer: Stephen Grimes
Art Director: Colin Grimes
Wardrobe Supervisor: Rosemary Burrows
Film Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Original Music: James Horner
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood from his play
Produced and Directed by
Peter Yates

We find ourselves returning ever so often to this very satisfying movie, and each time we become more involved with its rich characters. The Dresser received an impressive five Academy nominations in 1984, but took home no wins. The competition was worthy: Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay split the vote and lost to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Director Peter Yates, writer Ronald Harwood and the Best Picture category all lost to James L. Brooks, who gathered up three Oscars in one go for Terms of Endearment. But the Columbia release is a definite career highlight for all of its makers — it can hold its own against those other two pictures as well as other standouts from 1983 —  Educating Rita,  Silkwood,  The Right Stuff.

The original Broadway play of The Dresser is from 1981. The premiere starred Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers, who we remember in supporting roles in films such as Our Man in Havana and Billy Budd.

Director Peter Yates spent years as a crack assistant director on prestige dramas (The Entertainer,  Sons and Lovers) and his talent for organizing complex action (The Guns of Navarone) carried into his directing career. He tends to be remembered for action-oriented hits like  Robbery and Bullitt, but his overall record has a broader range — John and Mary,  The Friends of Eddie Coyle,  Breaking Away.


This alternately funny and emotional drama is near the top of Yates’ achievements, and a delight from one end to the other. The subject is an eccentric English stage actor with an imposing reputation and even bigger personality problems. He’s played in high style by the versatile Albert Finney (Gumshoe,  Under the Volcano,  Shoot the Moon). The always-excellent Tom Courtenay (Doctor Zhivago,  45 Years) is deeply affecting as the personal assistant who waits on him hand and foot. The rest of the cast is a collection of pleasant surprises.

It is wartime in England. Bombs are falling everywhere, yet life goes on for a broken-down traveling company of thespians. “Sir” (Albert Finney) is a revered Shakespearean actor far past his prime yet still adored by his fans. Transportation and lodging are difficult, and rationing shortages make simple things like face powder tough to come by. But the audiences are as appreciative as ever — the entertainment is a major morale assist.

Even when at his best, Sir is an egocentric handful, a vain primadonna terrified of losing the spotlight. He’s highly superstitious and obsessed with his status, even in these ‘reduced circumstances.’ Sir is becoming so erratic in his behavior, some of the company including his wife “Her Ladyship” (Zena Walker) wonder if he should be performing at all.


The full-time job of keeping Sir on his feet and fit to perform falls to his dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), a fussy, emotional busybody with a weakness for his hip flask. Poor Norman must also serve as the conduit between Sir and the rest of the company. With most able-bodied actors serving in the army, Sir must perform with elderly retreads and barely-competents. He constantly, tactlessly harps on their shortcomings. Alternately domineering and neurotic, Sir is so intimdated by his one very good actor, Oxenby (Edward Fox), that he avoids speaking to him in person.

The trouble starts when Sir’s behavior suddenly goes beyond erratic, to out-of-control. He’s panicky one moment and uncommunicative the next; he forgets who he is and what he’s doing. Although Norman complains about his employer, he’s also strongly attached to him and invested in the job. He’s determined to get Sir on his feet and on stage for a performance of King Lear. If Sir can’t perform, the whole company will collapse. What would Norman possibly do then?

Playwright Ronald Harwood constructed The Dresser from a wealth of English theater experiences. ‘Sir’ is said to be roughly based on the (primarily) stage actor Sir Donald Wolfit,  ( ) a bearish, glowering powerhouse seen by American audiences in small roles in big pictures (Lawrence of Arabia) and large, sometimes very hammy acting in small pictures (Blood of the Vampire,  Satellite in the Sky). Wolfit was at one time the model for the overbearing, bigger-than-life ‘Ac-tor’ who carries his stage prerogatives over into real life, mesmerizing audiences but requiring patience and special handling from his entourage.

Grand old acting greats often tread the boards way past retirement age. Sir has difficulties enough just dealing with the pressure of putting on shows under wartime conditions. Most of his maddening behavior can be chalked up to professional insecurity, perhaps mixed in with incipient senility. His colleagues have long accepted his eccentricities, and put up with his tirades and tantrums. But now he’s wailing that he can’t go on. Norman refuses to accept that possibility.


Albert Finney holds screen center for more than half the running time. His Sir is an insufferable egotist; even when he barely comprehends what’s going on, he clings to self-centered illusions. He rails about being forced to perform with overaged hams and malcontents, yet he’s terrified of being shown up by a really good actor. Oxenby shows his resentment with a perpetual scowl. But he’s Sir’s only truly competent male performer — he mutters mutiny, but comes through like a trouper when Sir falters. Nobody says as much, but Oxenby may be available to act due to a war injury — he walks with a painful-looking limp.

More typical of Sir’s cohorts is the agreeable but second-rate Frank Carrington (Michael Gough of  The Horse’s Mouth), who foolishly tries to curry favor with the boss. Another old-timer really likes to play parts with few or no lines.

We presume that the movie ‘opens up’ the play, and well-judged exterior scenes recreate a wartime England under siege. Several breaks take us outside for glimpses of industrial towns with dark stone lanes and crowded pubs. A street market’s stalls are mostly empty due to the lack of foodstuffs. Out in public, Sir stares dumbly at a bombed house, and weakly acknowledges his charming local fans. He’s slow on the uptake and at a loss for words — especially with middle-aged fans gushing about how much they loved him when they were little children.

Everything about The Dresser charms and amuses. Sir’s touring troupe may look like a disaster, but it fills theaters at every stop. Today’s English teachers must be envious: the general English public seems to know and love Shakespeare and are excited to attend. A young couple on a date brings a book to follow along. When an air raid siren sounds, the audience chooses to stay in their seats and take their chances.


The play covers one theater move and the ragged preparations for a performance that nobody is sure will come off. Nobody in the company knows what to think when he appears to go completely off his rocker. Norman is the point man in the crisis. He knows Sir’s rollercoaster moods even better than does Her Ladyship, who long ago realized that even her best efforts will always be ignored. In ridiculously poor emotional shape, Sir must be reconstructed from the ego up. Norman resorts to all kinds of game-playing to get the man washed and into costume and makeup. Sometimes his sing-song prompts work, and sometimes Sir responds by flying into another rage.

Not helping much is Madge (Eileen Atkins of  Gosford Park), the stage manager who once hoped to marry Sir. Convinced that the show must be cancelled, he interrupts Norman’s efforts to calm Sir down. But Madge’s dedication to Sir remains strong. A touching moment reveals how much she has sacrificed just to live her life near him.

In a cute scene that pretty much sums up Sir’s relations with female cast members, he ‘auditions’ the stage aspirant Irene (Cathryn Harrison) for the thrill of seeing her legs. He’s such a transparent Dirty Old Man, he ought to be harmless. Irene tries out an Eve Harrington maneuver, not realizing that Sir’s interest in her ‘talent’ may only be that she weighs less than his present leading lady, and would be easier to carry on stage!


Tom Courtenay has possibly his best role since his breakthrough role of  Billy Liar, opposite Julie Christie. Norman minces and preens but he’s also the motivational dynamo capable of recharging Sir’s tired batteries. Norman can be spiteful but he’s mostly kind and protective. When Sir becomes convinced he’s forgotten the lines — or which play he’s performing, Norman can get him back on the right track.

The rest of the company doesn’t realize how helpless their boss would be without his dresser. Some see Norman as a detriment, perhaps even the cause of Sir’s troubles. It’s obvious that Sir can’t go on forever, and few of the players see themselves as being in-demand elsehwere. Oxenby is the exception. He wishes he could run his own touring company, but as he doesn’t have Sir’s decades of fame that may not be likely. Norman is a memorably sympathetic character and a great study of the pitfalls of devotion. If this maladroit troupe dissolves, his reward for years of tireless love and service isn’t going to be pretty.

The Dresser offers one genuine Classic Movie Moment, reportedly taken from a story told about old Sir Donald Wolfit. During a hasty, rushed dash from one theater booking to another, poor Norman must scramble through a busy railway station, and beg a train conductor to hold a departure for the 60 seconds it will take the tardy theater troupe to board. The conductor tells Norman to ‘sod off,’ the train’s wheels begin to turn and all seems lost, From a hundred yards away, Sir raises his cane and bellows “STOP THAT TRAIN!” in a commanding voice that reverberates around the cavernous station. The engineer throws on the brakes as if commanded by the Voice of God. Sir and his motley troupe board without further incident. The scene gets applause in theaters every time.



Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of The Dresser is a very good HD encoding, by Columbia Pictures, of this handsome show. The color and sharpness are naturally improved over the 2004 Columbia TriStar DVD, which was in turn much better than the old flat & dull cable TV copies. It doesn’t look like any digital work was done on the master, but the only evidence of that is a smattering of white dots on the B&W title sequence. The cinematography of Kelvin Pike brings out the character of the ancient theater and its crowded dressing rooms — and that wonderful railway station.

This free-standing [Imprint] release carries no extras.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Dresser
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
March 31, 2024

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Edward Sullivan

Finney and Harrison were in a relationship around the time of filming…

Courtenay and Finney partnered again in the television adaptation of A Rather English Marriage in 1998; Courtenay won a BAFTA best actor* award for that effort…

*and yet again, both Finney and Courtenay had been nominated…

Edward Sullivan

This speaks for itself, or rather, Tom Courtenay does:

Jenny Agutter fan

It’s on my list of movies to see. Might take a while to get to it, since I’ve got a long list.

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