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Film / The Dresser

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The Dresser is a 1983 drama film directed by Peter Yates, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.

It is 1940, and German bombs rain down on London. A classically trained actor only referred to as "Sir" (Finney) is the leader of a traveling troupe of Shakespearean players. Sir was once an actor of some renown—he is a knight, after all—but he has been reduced to touring the sticks and backwater towns of Britain. The existence of a theater troupe is only made harder by the war, which leaves Sir's troupe stuck with mostly second-rate actors as most of the best young men are serving in the armed forces.

Actually, while Sir is the star of the shows, the real leader is his faithful servant Norman (Courtenay). Norman, who seems to have nothing in his life other than Sir, has his work cut out for him. Sir is many years past his prime, aging, fragile, struggling to remember his lines, emotionally unstable, constantly teetering on the edge of breakdown. Norman has a tough job getting Sir ready and dressed and fit to perform Shakespeare.

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Ronald Harwood wrote the script, which was based on his own play. One of the rare films two feature two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, for Finney and Courtenay; they both lost to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies.

Remade in 2015 for TV, with Anthony Hopkins as Sir and Ian McKellen as Norman.


Tropes:

  • All Take and No Give: Sir does this with both Madge and Norman, using them and giving nothing back. Madge the Love Martyr has come to terms with this, saying she'll take what she can get. Norman for his part doesn't realize this until he reads the dedication to Sir's memoir and does not find his name. He flies into a rage, calling Sir "an ungrateful old sod."
  • Arc Words: When giving advice or recommendations, Norman tends to give examples, starting with, "I had a friend..." It takes on a tragic meaning at the end, when he is weeping over Sir's dead body. All he can get out is, "I had a friend."
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  • Blackface: Sir dons it to play Othello. Later, he forgets which play he's in and puts on blackface when he's supposed to be getting ready for King Lear.
  • Camp Gay: Norman is very effeminate in speech and manner, which just makes it all the more amazing when Sir and others make derogatory comments about "buggers" without realizing.
  • Downer Ending: Ends with Norman weeping over Sir's body after Sir dies in his dressing room.
  • During the War: As mentioned, the film takes place in World War II Britain during the height of The Blitz.
  • Film Within a Film: Othello in the opening scene, but mostly King Lear. The choice of Lear has obvious thematic reference, as Sir, like Lear, is a once-great man now facing aging and death.
  • The Ghost: Davenport Scott, recently a player with the troupe, no longer around because he was busted for sodomy. Constantly referred to, like when they have to figure out who's going to play the Fool in Lear because Scott isn't around, or when they have to figure out who's going to operate the wind machine because that was Scott's job.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Norman is often seen taking a swig from a flask as the stresses of holding the production together get to him. Eventually it's clear that he has a drinking problem.
  • Inspired by...: Loosely inspired by Ronald Harwood's experiences as the assistant to an aging, over-the-hill Sir Donald Wolfit.
  • It's All About Me: Sir seems to think Adolf Hitler started World War II in order to wreck his tour.
    Sir: Tonight we are going to speak Will Shakespeare, and they [[the Germans]] will go to any length to stop me!
    Norman: I shouldn't take it so personally, sir.
  • Job Title: Norman dresses Sir.
  • Large Ham: Sir's performances, as was the style for Shakespeare of the day. Sir behaves this way off the stage as well, constantly agitated and yelling.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Sir cannot function without Norman. Norman constantly has to battle to keep Sir emotionally calm and stable, he has to help Sir remember his lines, he does indeed have to dress Sir—at one point Norman comes into Sir's dressing room right before a show and sees to his horror that Sir is putting on blackface for Othello, when the play for the night is King Lear.
  • Love Martyr: Madge the stage manager eventually reveals to Sir that she's stayed with the troupe for 20 years because she's deep in unrequited love with Sir.
    Madge: I've taken what I can get.... No, I haven't been happy. Yes, it's been worth it.
  • No Indoor Voice: Sir's default volume setting is "bellow." Occasionally this pays dividends. In one scene a train is taking off from the station without the actors, who are late. Sir booms "STOP THAT TRAIN!", and amazingly, the train does in fact stop.
  • No Name Given: Not only is Sir only ever called that, his wife and leading actress is only called "her Ladyship."
  • Performance Anxiety: Norman seems to have the works of William Shakespeare committed to memory, but he's utterly terrified when he has to make an announcement to the audience about the air raid.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Played very tragically, as Sir seems to be slowly breaking down, unable to remember lines or even remember what play they're doing. He also has wild emotional outbursts in public, as well as occasionally slipping into near-catatonia.
  • The Scottish Trope: When an addled Sir quotes from Macbeth Norman freaks out, yelping "You've quoted from the Scottish tragedy!" He makes Sir do some dumb ritual where Sir has to leave the dressing room, turn around three times, and knock to gain re-entry.
  • Spot of Tea: One of the many tools that Norman uses to calm down a raging, blustering Sir.
  • The "The" Title

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