Actors are not like everyone else, and that assessment is both a compliment and a diagnosis in “The Dresser,” a play by Ronald Harwood that has been turned into a claustrophobic but ultimately affecting TV movie starring Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins.
The setting will be familiar to those who’ve seen the play or the 1983 Peter Yates film based on it. In a provincial dressing room during WWII, an aging actor-manager known only as Sir (Hopkins) prepares to play King Lear, but it’s an understatement to say he has trouble focusing on his upcoming performance, or anything else, for that matter. He is eventually propelled into work mode by the sheer force of will of his dresser, Norman (McKellen).
Is Sir mentally or physically ill, or has he begun to slip into dementia? The parallels between the character and Lear are many, and the premise supports plenty of different readings. The actors determined to offer the provinces a solid slice of Shakespearean drama could represent plucky England in her darkest hour, or they could stand in for any group of artists who give their all to their chosen discipline, despite constant trials and the frequent indifference of the universe.
Of course, “The Dresser” could just be the knowing story of a group of characters who are at the end of their ropes, and who, under their various forms of bluster and repression, have no idea whether any of the sacrifices they’ve made were worth the prices they’ve paid. Mix that kind of existential angst to the kind of A-list talent on display in this production, and the result is highly watchable, if a bit of a verbal barrage at times.
McKellen’s Norman spends much of the play motivating his charge, and the ticking clock of the pre-curtain rituals keeps the energy of “The Dresser” moving smartly in the opening scenes. More than once, he calls to mind the most stalwart of English character types, the iron-fisted and slyly clever nanny who commands her charges to do their duty to King and country — or in this case, to the theatergoers who’ve stayed in their seats despite the air raid sirens that warn of German attacks.
Norman, who is himself continually giving a performance of working-class brio, can be a lot to take, and as the play gathers steam, director Richard Eyre accents the smallness of the dressing room, a battered space decorated in shades of brown, black, and green. Especially at the start, there are few breaks from the dresser’s non-stop chatter and his endless stories (and here Norman’s Northern accent might present the occasional obstacle to American audiences). Even if Norman rarely pauses for breath, it might have served “The Dresser” well to do so now and then in its busy first half.
The play’s central premise can be read so many different ways that “The Dresser” can seem a little glib, and its deeper layers are elusive at times. It’s also a bit self-congratulatory: It’s not hard to imagine why artists with deep ties to the stage wanted to dive headfirst into a piece that ultimately celebrates their unique bravery.
Several key moments transpire during an eventful intermission in the troupe’s production of “Lear,” and during and after that break, “The Dresser” finds a more contemplative gear, though there are plenty of deliciously catty asides scattered throughout the film. In one aside, Sir mentions having seen a fellow actor’s Lear: “I was pleasantly disappointed,” he sighs. He may have seen better days, but both Sir and Norman have the kind of rapier wit most likely to be found in dressing rooms filled with greasepaint and cold tea.
As the film progresses, McKellen and Hopkins find the terrified, small human beings behind the various masks their characters wear, and Sarah Lancashire and Emily Watson are pitch perfect as Madge, a stage manager, and Sir’s actress wife, Her Ladyship, respectively. These women and other members of the company have given up all hope of semi-normal lives, for far less glory and attention than Sir, who, despite his wry disgust for critics, carries around a thick book of press clippings.
“The Dresser’s” humane wisdom is revealed in moving ways in the film’s home stretch. Sir, it emerges, is a sort of energy vampire, one who feeds off the neverending service and unrequited love of others. And yet, thanks to Hopkins’ profoundly wise and subtle performance, it’s impossible to feel anything but kind regard for the old warhorse. By that end of the movie, the viewer has seen how much mental and physical energy it takes to go out and play Lear’s mad scene, let alone connect with the play in ways that feel vital and fresh. Sir, who labors in obscurity despite having performed the great Shakespeare plays hundreds of times, has spent his whole life scrabbling for tiny shreds of spontaneity and true inspiration, and given how much focus he had to bring to that search, you can hardly blame him for losing the plot, literally and figuratively.
Was it wrong for Norman, Her Ladyship or Madge to give themselves to the capricious and punishing gods of Art? Especially in a culture that values the stiff upper lip over therapeutic and freely shared truths? Then again, maybe the narrowness of English culture made them desperate to break free, and despite the shabby wigs and down-market surroundings, in their own ways, they do.
“It’s never too late,” muses Thornton (Edward Fox), a member of the company who took up acting after a lifetime spent making rational and unfulfilling choices. He seems relatively content, but Norman, who’s clearly a frustrated actor himself, is anything but. McKellen’s great technique is revealed in the way he slowly reveals the drunkenness of his character (who swigs from a brandy bottle all night), and his bitterness as well.
“It’s a full house,” Norman assures his boss again and again before the company takes the stage. Sir often looks as though he doesn’t believe what he’s hearing — but he’s as addicted to the stage as he is to his dresser’s blind faith.