The setting is London during the darkest hours of World War II for England. Albert Finney is Sir, a worn-out actor and manager of a traveling theatre company specializing in Shakespeare plays. Years of touring in the provinces with scant recognition or rewards to compensate for the attendant hardships have taken their toll on Sir. He experiences a breakdown in the marketplace and is briefly hospitalized.

Norman (Tom Courtenay), Sir's loyal "dresser" of 16 years, coaxes and eventually convinces Sir that the show must go on. For the nervous and fidgety valet, the theatre is a sanctuary: "Here's beauty. Here's spring and summer. Here pain is bearable." The pain he experiences originates with his boss. The old trouper patronizes and often ignores him.

This fascinating drama based on a play by Ronald Harwood gives an excellent behind-the-scenes perspective on the theatre business. The performances by Courtenay and Finney bring the world of make believe to vivid life. Sir, wieighted down with regrets is Lear, raging on the heath against the Nazi air raids. Norman is the Fool, ever ready to serve, tea in hand, fending off unwelcome admirers and keeping things together. Elieen Atkins is excellent as the stage manager who has loved Sir from afar for years.

An emotional display of fireworks caps this thoroughly engaging film. Peter Yates directs The Dresser with the finesse appropriate to its subject.