The Dresser

Movie review by
Kat Halstead, Common Sense Media
The Dresser Movie Poster Image
Oscar-nominated British drama has drinking, iffy language.
  • PG
  • 1983
  • 118 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie celebrates perseverance and dedication to both professional and personal relationships. But it also shows how relationships can be manipulated and become destructive, losing a sense of self in the process.

Positive Role Models

Sir is a veteran actor who is supremely talented, but also arrogant and selfish, relying on alcohol and the patience of those around him to get by. Others within the theater company enable his bad behavior and it is questionable as to whether he is encouraged on to the stage for his own sake, or in the interest of those around him. Norman, in particular, shows both great kindness and understanding toward his boss, but also manipulative and self-serving qualities. Dark make-up is used to "black up" a character.


The sounds of air raids can be heard during a performance, with bombs dropped nearby and the debris of buildings seen. One character is both verbally and physically aggressive toward others and at one point wields a sword. There is a death scene with a dead body onscreen, and a hospital scene with a hypodermic needle shown. Reference is made to psychological struggles and mental health.


A character in a position of power refers to a junior employee as a "pretty young thing" and touches them over their clothes. A joke is made about STDs, referring to "the clap." A bathing scene shows a character bare chested.


Occasional use of "bastard," "bugger," "sod," "piss," "pissing," "bloody," and "ass." Homophobic language is used, such as "nancy boy" and "ponce," as well as "cripple" spoken in a derogatory way. There is also reference to "blacking up."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters regularly smoke cigarettes, and there are scenes in a bar and backstage in which spirits and beers are consumed. Characters are seen to be both reliant upon alcohol and visibly drunk. A hypodermic needle is shown but not injected.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Dresser is an Oscar-nominated British drama about a relationship between a veteran actor and his personal assistant, with drinking and themes surrounding mental health. Set during World War II, the movie refers to rations and includes scenes with air raids, as well as the debris of bombed buildings. Cigarettes are smoked and alcohol consumed frequently, with characters seen drunk. Sir (Albert Finney), in particular, struggles with alcohol, which along with other mental health issues, leads to confused and aggressive behavior that may be distressing for some. Sir is supported by Norman (Tom Courtenay), although he himself shows manipulative and self-serving qualities. Language includes "bastard," "sod," and "bugger" and there are homophobic references and a scene that involves "blacking up." An older male character, and one within a position of power, makes inappropriate comments to a more junior female colleague, which go unchallenged. The movie is often farcical and features frequent witty lines, as well as touching moments, allowing a good balance between playfulness and its darker themes.

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What's the story?

In THE DRESSER, while on a Shakespeare tour with a disorganized theater company during World War II, personal assistant Norman (Tom Courtenay) struggles to help aging actor, Sir (Albert Finney). Ravaged by psychological trauma as he relives his title roles, both on and off the stage, Sir spends his time confused, distressed, and often drunk, as Norman supports, pampers, and enables him -- and those around him -- to ensure the show goes on.

Is it any good?

Both Courtenay and Finney were Oscar nominated for their roles here, and it is no surprise given the absolute tour de force performances at the heart of this classic British movie. Based on a play about a play, The Dresser has an old-school theatrical quality, rich with tradition, that really illuminates the gloomy backstage world of the theater. From the antiquated storm effects to the rituals for luck and fear of mentioning the dreaded "Scottish play" (Macbeth), it is not just Finney's disintegrating psyche that hangs by a thread, but the entire production.

Courtenay shines as the maniacally practical "dresser" -- all soothing words, upbeat pep talks, and swigs of the hard stuff -- treading a fine line between devoted care and mild contempt, to keep both men stumbling toward a goal of greatness long since past. Finney's formidable bully of a man is, in turns, lost boy and raging bull, the sheer power of his booming Shakespearean projection enough to bring a moving locomotive to halt when he hollers "Stop that train!" as the troupe rush through a station. Cleverly written and beautifully directed to capture the finer details of both farce and tragedy alike, this is a true classic of British stage and screen, and merges the traditions of both expertly with the help of some true greats of the British scene.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how drinking is portrayed in The Dresser. Do any of the characters drink too much? Does their behavior seem realistic/believable? Are there consequences for what they do?

  • Sir appears to have some mental health issues. Did it feel like an authentic account of someone suffering with mental illness? Why, or why not? Why is it important to ensure such portrayals are realistic and not stereotypical?

  • Discuss the relationship between Norman and Sir. Do you think it was a healthy relationship? Talk about the difference between supporting and enabling.

  • Talk about some of the language used. Did you find any of it offensive?

  • Do you think the movie has aged well? Are there any aspects that you feel are problematic? How might this movie look if it was made today?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love Oscar-nominated films

Themes & Topics

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