The Dresser (UK 1983)

The Dresser

This film was screened at the Hebden Bridge Picture House in their ‘reel film’ series. The cinema now has a new set of custom-built seats in the auditoriums, replacing those damaged during the ravages of the floods in the area. These new seats are comfortable, well designed and roomy. So the cinema can now seat nearly 500 patrons. There were not quite that many for this screening, but it was an appreciative audience. The 35mm print was good quality with both the colour and definition looking fine. There was a little emergency with the projector just before the feature and there was not time to reset the shutter. So we had some occasional ‘ghosting’ but this was not realty noticeable.

The film is an acting vehicle with a fine company of experienced British actors. It is adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood which is a study of the important [but now almost defunct] actor-manager tradition of British repertory theatre. The main character is modelled on the real-life Sir Donald Wolfit: if you ever saw him on stage or film, or indeed heard him on radio, then this characterisation by Albert Finney is instantly recognisable. In fact, the writer Ronald Harwood worked with Wolfit for a number of years.

The film is set in Yorkshire during World War II. The original play was set in Plymouth, which made more sense of an air aid which occurs during one performance. The film uses locations in Halifax and Bradford, including Branford’s Alhambra Theatre. These are very well done and give the film a sense of realism rather separate from the artificial world of the theatre. The latter show us both backstage and front-of-house. The former is an inventory of stagecraft and offers a variety of cameos. Meanwhile the packed audiences are of a varied composition, with both working class and middle class members and members of the armed forces. This reminded me of the centrality of wartime culture that one finds in the films of Humphrey Jennings.

In one way the film is dominated by the performance of Albert Finney as the ‘Sir’ – star and manager of the company. But the title role is his personal dresser, played by Tom Courtenay, who also starred in the original stage production. Both are excellent, displaying all their crafts to characterise both the larger-than-life actor/manager and his devoted but rather camp valet. The performances, as with the theatrical sequences, show the tenor of the original theatrical origins of the story. However, there is a low-key and nicely underplayed performance by Eileen Atkins as the troupe’s stage manager. Between them the film and the performances offer humour, drama, irony and finally a certain sadness.

The film opens with the closing scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. The bulk of the film is a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. And there are references or even dialogue from ‘As You Like It’, ‘Hamlet’ ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Richard III’. More than this, the plot is modelled partly on ‘King Lear’ with interpolations from the other plays. These variations on the Bard’s works are very effective. This was a good start to Shakespeare’s anniversary.

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