Lesser troupe members include humorless and long-suffering but highly competent stage manager Eileen Atkins; Zena Walker as Finney's wife and female lead; Edward Fox as an ill-tempered second lead; and Cathryn Harrison, the granddaughter of Rex Harrison, as an ambitious young actress, something like Anne Baxter from All About Eve, but less cunning.
Since young male actors are off to war, the troupe is stocked with aging actors, some of whom are as effeminate as Courtenay. But the true peril faced by the company is Finney's declining health. He is physically exhausted and mentally distressed, which makes it unlikely he will be able to perform the demanding lead role in that evening's performance of "King Lear."
But Courtenay insists to the doubtful Atkins that Finney will be up to the task. Both are proven correct.
How others will see it. The Dresser had considerable appeal to Anglophiles. It racked up a total of 17 major nominations at the Golden Globes, Oscars, and BAFTA, but unfortunately lost in all categories, mostly to Terms of Endearment and The Killing Fields. The former was a Hollywood production, the latter a human rights film, but although both fit the bill for voters, neither was as good as The Dresser.
The film remains little known outside of critical circles, but the user ratings at imdb.com are fairly high, and rise moderately with advancing age.
How I felt about it. The Dresser was based on the successful Broadway play, which also starred Tom Courtenay. Both Courtenay and Finney were formerly famous for leading roles in "Kitchen Sink" dramas during the early 1960s. It is mildly depressing to see them, just twenty years later, in middle-aged and elderly roles. Then again, at least they are successful actors, and are still alive, a fate not shared by Heather Sears, one of leading young actresses of the "Kitchen Sink" era.
Between Courtenay and Finney, Courtenay has the bigger role, and the better role as well, since Finney is hardly recognizable beneath his makeup. But Finney may give the better performance, partly because he sinks deeper into his character, but mostly because he doesn't have to act like a possessive sissy. Courtenay plays his part well, and relishes it, since it led to acclaim on both U.S. coasts. Still, one can play a homosexual without playing a queen, and sometimes Courtenay forgets the difference, especially when his hands flutter and his face makes mincing expressions.
We also wonder how much in love Atkins ever was with Finney, who is as selfish and aggravating as he is essential to the troupe. Without him, the company has no name recognition, the vital ingredient for ticket sales.
Late director Peter Yates (Bullitt, Breaking Away) does a fine job, but the real talent here is screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who also wrote the source play. Today, Harwood is better known for The Pianist and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, particularly the former, which won an Oscar for its adapted screenplay.
But while The Dresser can never match the humanitarian aspects of The Pianist, it easily bests it in a contest of wit. Both Finney and Courtenay are given numerous amusing lines, none of which will be quoted here, since their context is more fulfilling within the film itself.