Dresser, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Mar 28, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Dresser, The (Blu-ray Review)


Peter Yates

Release Date(s)

1983 (March 8, 2024)


Goldcrest Films (Imprint/Via Vision)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: F

The Dresser (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


The backstage world of the theater can sometimes be more dramatic than the shows the public pays to see. The Dresser builds its story around the fraught co-dependency between the irascible star of a Shakespearean repertory company and the devoted manservant who coddles and coaxes him into costume and makeup.

Sir (Albert Finney, Tom Jones) is the head of an aging troupe of actors and stagehands touring the United Kingdom during World War II. His dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay, Billy Liar), is a gay man who evidently lives to serve and protect the boss. In preparing him to take the stage, he takes on the roles of cheerleader, therapist, shoulder to cry on, and punching bag for Sir’s angry outbursts. Norman makes sure the alcoholic, bitter, verbally abusive Sir makes his entrance night after night despite his dressing-room histrionics and remembers his lines despite his encroaching senility.

The Dresser is essentially a two-man show. Other actors in the troupe figure into the drama, however, and the supporting cast is an illustrious one, including Eileen Atkins, Edward Fox, Zena Walker, Sheila Reid, and Michael Gough.

Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, the film is not at all stagey and static. Director Peter Yates (Bullitt) keeps the pace brisk, with the major strength of the production being the repartee between two strong-willed individuals who share a mutual reliance. Cinematographer Kelvin Pike provides plenty of visual variety as the scenes shift from dressing-room tantrums to the consternation of the other actors to the steely focus of the stage manager to the frantic crew backstage.

Finney, 50 when he made the film, is made up to look decades older. Balding, wrinkled, his speech slurred by too much booze, he’s a bane to the company, who don’t know from evening to evening whether Sir will be up to performing. That’s where Norman’s magical touch comes in. He’s the only one who knows how to handle the stubborn, intimidating egotist with compassion, encouragement, and cheery gossip, while parrying his hurtful barbs. He knows his routine and the mind of Sir to such a degree that he can anticipate and weather the actor’s moods.

Courtenay has the kind of role that actors love. Norman is flamboyant, funny, and expert at his job. Ever in motion, Norman is the engine that makes Sir run. Even though Sir has performed his Shakespearean repertoire hundreds of times, the bombastic blusterer still suffers from stage fright. With an instinctive skill, Norman can bring Sir out of a pre-show depression into readiness to take the stage in a remarkable amount of time, even as other members of the company are certain he’s in no condition to perform.

Finney and Courtenay play off each other with the ease of an old married couple. If it weren’t for Norman, Sir would be washed up. If not for Sir, Norman would be out of a job in an era of routine discrimination against gay people. Though it’s never stated, it’s clear these two have been together for a long time and have come to accept each other as lifelines. When Sir behaves badly and Norman must endure his rudeness quietly, we feel for them both.

The Dresser is also a commentary on the indomitability of the British people during the war. With the dearth of men to do the heavy work backstage, the younger actresses team up to get the jobs done and Norman pitches in, as well. Even as German bombs fall, the company perseveres, the shows go on, and audiences remain in their seats. Sir and Norman forge ahead, knowing that, but for mere luck, they all could be killed. The theater is vital to morale, and they will do their part to raise it. This subtextual theme makes Sir and Norman more than temperamental theater folk. They’re doing their part along with the rest of the company to boost British morale.

The Dresser was shot by director of photography Kelvin Pike on 35 mm film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Blu-ray release features a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Filmed entirely inside theaters, the film avoids a claustrophobic feel with movement of both actors and camera. The editing, too, contributes to a brisk pace. But the most riveting element is the two lead performances. Director Yates uses close-ups to get into the minds of two complicated individuals. Make-up, when it represents stage make-up, is much heavier and more extreme than is typical in movies.

The soundtrack is English LPCM Mono. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise. A thunderstorm on stage is simulated by a wind machine, drums, and a metal sheet being shaken. As the acting company changes trains, steam emerging from engines and trains entering and leaving the station are heard. Sir’s outbursts and a crucial monologue from Norman amp the sound level.

There are no bonus materials on the Region-Free Blu-ray release from Imprint Films.

The Dresser is a kind of love letter to the theater and a bittersweet character study of the complex bond between a pompous actor and a pampering valet. It’s a tour-de-force for both Finney and Courtenay, who turn in touching, empathetic performances. The plot is based on the real life of the actor Sir Donald Wolfit. Playwright Ronald Harwood was briefly Wolfit’s dresser.

- Dennis Seuling