Most of the time, when I anticipate an upcoming film, it’s because of what sounds like a fantastic story or because it’s from a director who has proven that their films should be anticipated regardless of what they’ve chosen as their latest project. However, there are rare times when a film goes on my must-see list simply due to the talent in front of the camera, when the actors are so strong, you could really care less what the story is as long as you get to see them perform. For “The Dresser,” based on the play by Ronald Harwood, not only do we get one legend of the stage and screen with Sir Ian McKellen, but two with Sir Anthony Hopkins, performing in a film together for the first time ever. If that’s not something that scintillates your cinematic appetite, then I’m not sure what would.
Taking place during World War II, a British acting troupe is to put on a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” that evening, except that the lead actor, known only as “Sir” (Sir Anthony Hopkins), has suddenly become rather ill. His wife (Emily Watson) argues that they should cancel the performance, but his dresser, Norman (Sir Ian McKellen), disagrees and does everything he can to get Sir ready for the show. It’s touch-and-go for a while, with Sir continually forgetting the opening line and even what play they’re to perform, but he too is determined to go on with tonight’s performance, regardless of his recent health scare. As he says, he’s never had to cancel a performance before, and he’s not about to start now.
Harwood’s play, which has been adapted for the screen and directed by Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal,” “Iris”), is one of those backstage dramas that follows everyone around before, during, and after the performance. The main relationship we concentrate on is that between Sir and Norman, his dresser (the one responsible for dressing the actor and applying his makeup), two men who have seemingly known each other for years. They’ve been through many performances together, so when Sir becomes not quite himself, it takes Norman to help set him straight again so that he can go on with the night’s show. After all, who else would know how to get an actor ready better than his dresser?
This is truly the core of the film, and it’s also where it’s most successful. There are times when the film shifts the focus in an effort to explore other characters, such as Sir’s wife, a stage manager, and some of the actors, but their smaller roles are just not as compelling as the aging actor and the scenes he shares with his old assistant. In fact, the only other time the film becomes rather gripping are in the scenes in which we have the pleasure of watching Hopkins perform scenes as King Lear, which are so splendid that you wish you could see an entire production of it (and which he has actually performed on stage in the past). But of course, this is to be expected of the great Anthony Hopkins, who has dazzled audiences in numerous roles, including his Oscar-winning turn in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
The hard question that the filmmakers had to face in this regard was who they could possibly put alongside Hopkins in this production. Who would be able to stand up against such an acting titan? Well, they decided to solve that problem by simply getting another in the form of the unparalleled Sir Ian McKellen. Though most of today’s generation may know him as Gandalf or Magneto, there are many who recognize him for his incredible talents outside of the big budget franchises that he’s participated in. He, like Hopkins, is certainly no stranger to Shakespeare, having been in numerous stage and screen adaptations (including one of “King Lear” back in 2008). It becomes a bit of a shame that he doesn’t get to speak much of it in the film, but he still delivers an excellent performance nonetheless as he scuttles about in an effort to make sure that the show still goes on.
As far as the play itself goes, it ends up being mostly so-so. There are some truly inspired portions of it, though there seems to be an equal amount that brings the pacing down a bit too much, including an unexplored relationship between Sir and the stage manager, and a pair of scenes involving one of the younger actors. However, a pair of brilliant performances from the leads helps to transcend any issues that the play has. In other words, the film is worth watching simply to see Hopkins and McKellen together, doing what they do best. Normally, one of them would be enough, but to have them both in one project marks an event that any cinema lover would be mad not to check out at least once. It may not have been the best material to finally bring these two together, but in the end, you can’t deny that they knock the roles right out of the park.
“The Dresser” comes to DVD in a 1.78: 1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer of decent quality. This being a DVD, you’re going to notice a fair amount of fuzziness to the image, but it doesn’t do much to hinder the presentation. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is a little soft, but once adjusted, you are treated to a fine track that gives you all of the dialogue and score in satisfactory quality. Overall, the film has been given pretty good treatment that’s acceptable for the format.
From Stage to Screen (3 Minutes): A very brief featurette that focuses on adapting Harwood’s play for television.
Master & Assistant (3 Minutes): Another brief featurette that explores the relationship between the two main characters.
While “The Dresser” may have ups and downs in its narrative, there’s no denying that Sir Anthony Hopkins and Sir Ian McKellen deliver stunning performances that alone make the film worth seeing. This was certainly an interesting idea for a play, but one can’t help but think it would have been more successful if it had concentrated on the two main characters a lot more instead of trying to clutter it up with subplots that don’t get anywhere. As it is, it balances out to a decent production, one that cinema fans will find intriguing, even if it’s just to see the two acting titans together at last.
Available on DVD starting tomorrow.
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