Airtime: Monday, May 30th, at 9PM on Starz
Tweetable Takeaway: Anthony Hopkins delivers his best performance in years in Starz’s new film The Dresser.
With their new film THE DRESSER, an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play, whose earlier film adaptation netted five Oscar nominations in 1983, it appears that Starz wants to take a page out of HBO’s successful playbook by making itself a contender at this year’s Emmy awards. After successfully launching their own Game of Thrones-style show with Outlander in 2014, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, the former chairman and CEO of HBO, no doubt realizes the benefits that adding Emmy nominations to a network’s coffers can provide in boosting its legitimacy, especially in this age of peak television, where viewers have a limitless number of options available, and convincing them to fork over money for Starz each month is an increasingly difficult proposition.
The Dresser originally premiered on the BBC last October, and acts as Starz’s first original film, a frankly startling fact given that the network has been around since 1994. The film stars Anthony Hopkins as Sir, an aging theater actor whose deteriorating mind threatens his troupe’s production of King Lear, and Ian McKellan as the actor’s dresser Norman, who goes against the wishes of the doctors and members of the troupe by insisting that Sir is well enough to perform, giving him the Sisyphean task of ensuring that Sir is lucid enough to perform when the curtain rises.
While The Dresser should succeed at adding a bit of class and caché to Starz’s original programming lineup, the film is not without many shortcomings that make it unlikely it’ll bring many new viewers into the fold. It’s intimate to the point of being claustrophobic, with its theatrical qualities- limited locations, few characters, pedestrian camerawork, and each scene feeling overlong and belaboring its point- making it a decidedly uncinematic experience. While it feels rather stale and inconsequential overall, the lead performances by Hopkins and McKellan are so good, and full of a vigor I didn’t realize they were capable of any longer, that it makes up for the rest of the film’s faults.
Since he won the Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs in 1992, Anthony Hopkins career has been filled with roles in which he appeared half asleep, with little interest in anything more than the next paycheck. But as Sir, the veteran actor who vacillates between inspiring alacrity and morose senility after suffering a public meltdown earlier in the day, we see the magnetic sparks that once made Hopkins one of the world’s greatest living actors. Sir is a complex role; we have to at once see in him the greatness that once resided, and the qualities that have made those who gravitate around him so loyal for so many years, but we also need to understand that there’s a darker edge to him, a self-centeredness that has created an unspoken bitterness and resentment in those very same people who have been loyal to him for those years.
Chief among those loyal few is Norman, McKellan’s dresser character, whose entire reason for existence in his old age is his ceaseless servitude to Sir. He seems content doing whatever Sir needs with little in the way of thanks, with his only consolation being the occasional nips from his flask he’s able to take when Sir’s indisposed. McKellan, who’s had a better run than Hopkins of late, mostly due to his grandfathering into franchises such as X-Men and The Hobbit, gives his most captivating performance since perhaps 1998’s Gods and Monsters. Usually a figure of respectable austerity, McKellan plays against type here as an effeminate, subservient character whose supplication borders on the pitiable. We come to see his obsession with Sir as a toxic mixture of selfless and selfish love; his life has no meaning without his servitude, but he does genuinely love Sir and want what’s best for him. The moment in which Norman heartbreakingly realizes that he isn’t thanked in Sir’s book, which features an extensive list thanking seemingly everyone he’s worked with during his long career, was a tragic button for the story. Considering how much of the story deals with mortality and the fear of being forgotten about after death, it’s devastating to see Norman already forgotten by the person to whom he’s dedicated his life.
Also on the list of those aggrieved by Sir, there’s Emily Watson as Her Ladyship, his longtime life and acting partner, whose long-held resentments boil to the surface after he refuses to follow the doctor’s prescription for rest. She’s been Sir’s second fiddle for many years, marginalized and criticized in his shadow, without ever receiving the acclaim she feels like she deserves. Even in their relationship, she’s never received the gratitude she feels she deserves, and the fact that they never married because he feared it would conflict with his knighting speaks to her place on his list of priorities, making her wonder whether her sacrifices for Sir were ultimately worth it. Even worse off than Her Ladyship is Madge, Sarah Lancashire’s longtime stage manager for Sir whose love for him has gone forever unrequited.
The best aspect of The Dresser‘s story is the way it delves into the psychological minutiae of an actor’s mindset at this time, since the lives of transient actors, most of whose legacies have been lost to time, have always been fascinating. Sir confesses his fears that he’ll be forgotten about once he passes away, and he implores Madge to speak well about him after he’s gone. It’s an empathetic exploration into a specific time, right before film took over as the dominant performative medium, when an actor lived on not through his image on celluloid but through the stories of his performance told over proceeding generations, and if he’s lucky, a book of all his press clippings from the era.
There are also some thought-provoking parallels to King Lear in the story, centrally the idea of a monarchal figure descending into madness and bequeathing his “legacy” unto the person who proves to love him the most. The parallels are never touched upon in an explicit way, but it is interesting to see how the story is structured in such a way that we see each of the three supporting characters- Norman, Her Ladyship, and Madge- essentially plead their case, although in these instances it’s not so much them pleading their love as it is them castigating Sir for his inability to reciprocate their love over the many years they spent together.
While The Dresser is ultimately an unambitious venture to mark Starz’s first foray into original films, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. At the very least, it’s encouraged me about HBO’s upcoming Westworld, starring Anthony Hopkins, since it showed that he’s still willing to engage with material if he finds it worthwhile or challenging enough. In the long run, The Dresser will likely be as forgotten by time as poor Norman has been by his beloved Sir, but for now it’s worth the two hours it’ll take to see these two great actors in Hopkins and McKellan perform opposite one another for the first, and likely only, time.
Eric enjoys watching and making movies.
Eric Colasante | Contributor