I just watched The Dresser this evening, having only seen it once before, about a dozen years ago.
It's not a "big" movie, and doesn't try to make a big splash, but my God, the brilliance of the two leads leaves me just about speechless. Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay are nothing less than amazing in this movie.
The Dresser is the story of Sir, an aging Shakespearean actor (Finney), and his dresser Norman (Courtenay), sort of a valet, putting on a production of King Lear during the blitz of London in World War II. These are two men, each dependent upon the other: Sir is almost helpless without the aid of Norman to cajole, wheedle, and bully him into getting onstage for his 227th performance of Lear. And Norman lives his life vicariously through Sir; without Sir to need him, he is nothing, or thinks he is, anyway.
This is a character-driven film; the plot is secondary to the interaction of the characters, and as such, it requires actors of the highest caliber to bring it to life. Finney, only 47 years old, is completely believable as a very old, very sick, petulant, bullying, but brilliant stage actor. He hisses and fumes at his fellow actors even when they're taking their bows! And Courtenay is no less convincing as the mincing dresser, who must sometimes act more as a mother than as a valet to his elderly employer. Employer is really the wrong term to use, though. For although, technically their relationship is that of employer and employee, most of the time Sir and Norman act like nothing so much as an old married couple.
Yes, there are others in the cast of this movie, but there is no question that the true stars are Finney, Courtenay, and the marvelous script by Ronald Harwood. That is not to say that there aren't other fine performances, most notably Eileen Atkins as the long-suffering stage manager Madge. There is a wonderful scene where Sir and Madge talk about old desires, old regrets, and what might have been.
Although it doesn't get talked about these days, it is worth remembering that The Dresser was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Actor nominations for both Finney and Courtenay, Best Picture, Best Director (Peter Yates), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
I had remembered this as being a good movie, but I wasn't prepared to be as completely mesmerized as I was from beginning to end. If you want to see an example of what great acting is all about, and be hugely entertained all the while, then I encourage you to see The Dresser.