Two of Britain’s great Sirs – Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen – remind us all how its done in The Dresser
At its most basic level, Ronald Harwood’s (Oscar-winner for writing The Pianist) 1980 play The Dresser has two lead roles that, if performed properly, are instant awards bait. They’re the kinds of roles into which actors sink their teeth with reckless abandon. The roles have previously received Tony, Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe attention. Now, BBC Two and, here in America, Starz gives us two of Britain’s greatest actors – Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins – in a television adaptation of The Dresser. As if the competition weren’t stiff enough, these two acting giants give outstanding, monumental performances. They give the kind of performances that send critics scrambling for their thesauruses to redefine great acting. And, as an added bonus, the film itself is also quite good.
Not quite a two hander, The Dresser takes place in a London theater during the World War II bombing. “Sir” (Hopkins) is a legendary Shakespearean actor. The kind of been-around-the-bend actor who tallies each performance in chalk on his dressing room mirror. McKellen is his put-upon dresser, tasked with keeping “Sir” in place when his mental faculties are failing him. In the first 30 minutes, this seems an impossible task, but “Sir” rises to the occasion and shakes the rafters with a full-on performance of King Lear. Life after the performance is another story.
To say that McKellen and Hopkins work brilliantly together is to say the sky is blue. Of course they work well together. They are consummate actors, and these are parts based on the kind of actors and theater folks they’ve no doubt personally known. McKellen gives an uncharacteristically nutty performance, playing the dresser as something of a rambling, neurotic mess whose dedication (and perhaps love) for “Sir” demands every aspect of his life. The key to this performance, though, is to look beyond the neuroses and read through to the subtext. McKellen brilliantly conveys an exasperated sense of both longing and duty as the titular dresser.
As great as McKellen is, though, Hopkins thunders through his role as “Sir.” The role actually plays to Hopkins’ strengths (or penchant) as an actor because he’s both a raging inferno and a blubbering mess. If McKellen was subtext, then Hopkins is all TEXT. Of course it’s not an entirely subtle performance, but Hopkins is as staggeringly great in the contemplative moments that bookend his remarkable interpretation of Shakespearean acting. Both men are astounding. I perhaps prefer Hopkins slightly more because of that bombast of his I enjoy so much. It’s entirely a personal preference of course. Emily Watson also registers strongly in an underrated performance as “Her Ladyship,” or “Pussy” as “Sir” calls her.
The play itself is well rendered here, not having to concern itself with claustrophobia as it busies itself with backstage life. It’s very theme heavy with strands of aging, love, solitude, dedication, and of course the theater all resonating. However, since I have never seen the 1983 cinematic version of the material, it could serve as a law of diminish returns for others. Yet, to these uninitiated eyes, The Dresser is a classic television film, one that deserves heavy accolades in what’s proving to be a ridiculously great year for television.