There are a number of elements which have proven essential to crafting the perfect period British drama. Above all, there needs to be top actors, a time setting which says a lot about the world the characters are living in, and long, intoxicating wraps of dialogue that go on for days. So how could a period British drama starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen set in a theater in the English countryside during WW2 with elegiac tones to spare NOT be a deeply moving and engrossing experience? Well, The Dresser shows us how.
Richard Ayre adapts and directs this version of Ronald Harwood’s play set against the backdrop of WW2 in which Norman (McKellen), the long-serving costumer and dresser of a great actor (Hopkins) referred to simply as “Sir,” is anxiously awaiting for the man himself to arrive. While air raids approach outside the theater, Norman and company insist that the night’s performance go on. Therefore it is up to the devoted Norman to get Sir dressed and ready for the stage in spite of the legendary actor’s drinking habits and sporadic bouts of memory loss.
The sole reason that The Dresser fails to come together on pretty much every level imaginable is that it makes the grave misstep of feeling incredibly stagy from the moment begins. Obviously in love with the source material, Eyre directs his film as if it’s still on the stage. As a result, The Dresser is a film only on paper, and proves neither engaging nor welcoming for lovers of cinema in the slightest. One prime example of this can be found in the war references with outside sounds of airplanes and explosions letting us know that the characters are in the midst of WW2, but nothing actually shows us that they are. Meanwhile, forced musical cues and standard camera pans don’t make things better. Instead they just remind us how uninvolving the whole thing is.
It takes a while for the film’s ideology to make an appearance, but it eventually does, proving The Dresser to be a story about loyalty, friendship, and devotion. More than that, the film deals with the longing for days past and clinging to the present so that it too won’t soon disappear and join the past. The Dresser is also about the refusal to face the fact that time is indeed always at play, as evidenced by Sir’s noticeable losses in memory and overall failing health. For his part, Norman is trying so desperately to hold it together, excusing his friend’s condition as well as the rest of his shortcomings in devastatingly touching ways.
Hopkins’s entrance, as well as the surprisingly watchable sequence where he gets into character as King Lear, prove to be the only riveting moments in the film. In fact, his performance is the only reason to watch The Dresser. Maybe this is because Hopkins has such an extensive film resume, moreso than most of the cast, that he knows to play the material for this specific medium.
Everyone else in the cast (which also includes Emily Watson as Sir’s leading lady both on and off the stage) is good here. However, not only is that completely unsurprising, it’s downright disappointing because as lifeless as the whole endeavor is, not even good, practically stellar performances can resuscitate it. The entire cast give performances which feel as stagy and as closed off as the film itself, at times only adding to the problem.
As much I wanted to embrace and enjoy The Dresser, there was no getting over the fact that the film has an alienating feel to it. The frustration is so intense because literally every inch of this film should feel far more exciting and poetic that it does. Yet despite all the worthy tries, it cannot escape the dryness it was perhaps always meant to contain. The most tragic thing is, had we been watching a stage version, I have a suspicion that the story and the characters would be utterly compelling. But some plays were simply never meant to leave the stage.
A pair of making-of featurettes make up the film’s special features.
Lifeless and dull from the minute it starts, The Dresser takes a decent story and drains any and all positive attributes from it.
The Dresser is now available on DVD from Starz Media.