I went into this new adaptation of “The Dresser” assuming I’d see some fine acting. When a production features Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Watson, and Sarah Lancashire from “Happy Valley,” great expectations are quite in order.
I was not disappointed. “The Dresser,” which aired on the BBC last fall and premieres on Starz Monday at 8 p.m., is a British prestige blowout. It’s rich in commanding, frightening, and sad performances, all of which are in service of a beautifully layered script that takes on aging, missed opportunity, and dire regret. Based on Ronald Harwood’s 1980 stage play and directed by Richard Eyre, Starz’s “The Dresser” holds its own beside the 1983 film adaptation, which featured the mighty duo of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
The movie is set during World War II backstage at a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and the dressing room atmosphere recalls that of “Birdman.” Hopkins is “Sir,” the grandiose star of the play, who is succumbing to dementia. He’s in and out of lucidity, and it’s not clear he’ll be able to make it through the night’s performance, his 227th turn as Lear. About watching his decline, his long-suffering wife — Watson’s “Her Ladyship” — notes, “I’ve heard the hiss of air escaping.” Hopkins delivers all the rage, agitation, and self-pity of a fallen giant.
As Sir blusters and blows hard inside his dressing room, air raids pop in the distance. It’s Shakespeare’s “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks” in an echo chamber.
But it’s McKellen’s Norman who is at the emotional center of the film. And McKellen is majestic in the role of the man behind the man. Norman is Sir’s dresser, but we can see that he’s much more than that. He’s Sir’s biggest fan, his best champion, his surrogate parent, and the only person who still seems to see beyond the actor’s colossal ego. Norman will not hear of a missed performance, and he devotes himself to propping Sir back up. When the addled Sir begins to apply blackface, as if he’s about to play Othello, Norman redirects him to Lear. Meanwhile, the dresser quietly takes swigs of brandy to bolster his own confidence.
Norman is a tragic figure, a man who has given his life over to — and probably fallen in love with — an altogether unworthy recipient. He is a lonely fly caught in a narcissist’s web. McKellen builds Norman’s resentment slowly but surely, and his final eruption is devastating. Pathos is a mild word for what ensues, as Norman bares his own deep sorrow, actually sticking out his tongue at Sir so fiercely that the gesture loses the childlike affect it usually has. The composed gentleman becomes sloppy and bitter as he — and we — feel the full grief of his wasted life.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Emily Watson, Vanessa Kirby, Sarah Lancashire, Edward Fox, Tom Brooke
On: Starz, Monday at 8 p.m.