In this summer blockbuster season of franchise overkill and souped-up CGI decadence, it’s not hard to crave the more understated, yet still electric thrill that can be found in watching two performers encircle one another, building in intensity with every exchanged snatch of dialogue, exploring their respective ranges through mere interaction.
The Dresser, Starz’s stately entrance into the original filmmaking game, is an archetypal reminder of what makes those sorts of movies, when done right, so inherently cinematic. Two-handers are a classic of real, performance-driven entertainment, and with the starry one-two punch of Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins leading this latest take on the Ronald Harwood play, The Dresser goes for the theatric jugular early on, with an extended conversation between steadfast backstage assistant Norman (McKellen) and his boss’s quietly miserable wife (Emily Watson) that effortlessly lays out the main drama.
Norman is the long-suffering yet consummately devout attendant to “Sir,” a once-mighty thespian who has since experienced a severe mental and physical decline, emerging as irrational, unintelligible, irascible, and inconsolable, sometimes all at once. Sir is of the old school of acting, all bluster and brimstone, prone to bellicose exclamations and constant self-aggrandizement. He’s a force to be reckoned with in front of audiences, giving a thrilling lead performance in a small regional staging of King Lear, but his life behind the curtain is falling apart, accelerated by his inability to rein in a wandering mind and fierce temper.
Norman’s the devoted glue holding him together, and he’s spent so much time with the actor that the two have developed an all-consuming co-dependency that resembles a sexless marriage of minds. As we meet the characters, there’s an anxious smile and nervous gaiety to Norman’s motions – even as he watches Sir careen wildly over the edge of sanity, the attendant can’t conceal the sense of self-importance he feels in knowing that no one else is as good at bringing him back.
The film, set during World War II, charts one fateful evening in their company, as a performance of King Lear is held in the midst of an air raid, with Sir struggling to cling to relative lucidity in the wake of a full-on mental breakdown. Sir and Norman may be the two linchpins of the piece, but they’re far from its only players of note.
Her Ladyship, as Watson’s wife is known, is central in her souring toward her husband and how her increasing dissatisfaction at being tied to such a demanding presence influences her own actions. Madge (Sarah Lancashire) is the stage manager increasingly horrified by her star’s deterioration who’s as anchored to Sir as the rest of them yet just about as capable of concealing the depths of her devotion beneath the-show-must-go-on professionalism.
And yet, it’s the relationship between Norman and Sir, and the scenes in which they’re isolated, slipping immediately into the easy blindness of two men who know one another beyond all measure, that gets the spotlight. The Dresser soars on the strengths of these characters, written from the start with brilliant depth and aching truthfulness by Harwood and embodied on the screen with tour-de-force dynamism by two of the finest living actors currently in the game.
Hopkins hasn’t been this good in years, presenting Sir as a simultaneously pathetic and admirable figure, one of the great actors who – like so many of them – is under constant threat of collapsing under the weight of his own massive ego. The actor perfectly encapsulates the wild pendulum swings of Sir’s emotional range, from his self-important swagger to the deep-seated melancholy hidden beneath it, and makes such masterful shifts seem effortless.
McKellen is equally good, if not better, in the role of Norman, whose constant simpering and unmitigated support of his Sir carries an enigmatic charge. Has he devoted his life to this man out of a sense of love, obligation, fear, purposelessness, or some nebulous combination of those elements? Is he happy? Or does he regret it? Poker-faced and peculiarly buoyant, McKellen keeps the audience at a distance as effectively as Norman holds his personal desires in check, not revealing any semblance of an answer until the staggeringly powerful climax.
As The Dresser fills out its two-hour runtime, it impresses most in how it simultaneously affords its stars a truly exceptional showcase and works as a thought-provoking paean to the very medium of performance without veering into excessive histrionics. That’s a balancing act, but the film never appears to be juggling much of anything. A lot of that has to do with director Richard Eyre, who cleverly helms The Dresser as a play-within-a-play, echoing Birdman‘s technique of encircling his performers like a fly on the dressing-room wall. That style only serves to further emphasize the movie as a work of magnificent intimacy, a story of two men that lays bare both of their troubled, tangled souls and, in doing so, waxes poetic about the grand purpose imbued in those who’d sacrifice their very lives for the sake of another.
Thoughtful and thrilling in spite of its modest external appearances, The Dresser finds two of our finest thespians at the peak of their powers, working together to create something that's even more magnificent and moving than the sum of their stately parts.