You know those friends you’ve had forever? Maybe you don’t see them as often as you’d like, but you’ve shared so many adventures that whenever you get together, you pick up right where you left off, your conversation as full of vivid memories, tart observations, and raucous laughter as if you’d never been apart.
That’s kind of what it’s like going to see Tea With the Dames—a chatty and witty conversation with beloved old friends. It features four of our most acclaimed British actresses—Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins—in the most challenging roles of their careers: themselves. In this irresistible documentary from veteran feature director Roger Michell, these four great ladies of stage, screen, and television (each of them honored with the title of Dame), and longtime friends in real life, get together for an afternoon of tea and conversation—always, trenchant, often hilarious—about life, love, friendship, and the craft of acting.
When the Dames get together for one of their semi-regular rendezvous, Michell and his crew tag along. They meet in the garden of the country house Plowright shared for decades with her late husband, Lord Laurence Olivier (“Larry,” to one and all). They enjoy bantering with the crew members who take an interminable time setting up each shot. (“Hurry up,” advises Smith, “we’re taking root here.”)
But soon the conversation is in full swing. The Dames discuss companies, directors, producers, and fellow players they have worked with over the years, at venues from London’s prestigious National Theater at the Old Vic, to Smith’s turn as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, to an outdoor Mystery Play performed at York Cathedral in the medieval tradition, in which a very young Dench had a small role. A few random silent video clips from this production are fascinating (to us, and the Dames), showing how judiciously Michell uses vintage footage from the actresses’ illustrious careers to illustrate their stories.
(Smith recounts being a young actress playing Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello in a stage production videotaped for TV. When she huffs that Larry hit her, Michell shows us the resounding slap Olivier fetched his co-star in the heat of the moment. “That was the only time I saw stars at the National Theater,” Smith declares.)
Besides shop talk (discussing how to do Shakespeare “as poetry . . . but also be naturalistic”), the women field topics suggested by Michell—from husbands and children, to the 1960s (“We didn’t need the ’60s,” says Smith; they “behaved badly” enough). When asked if they might have any advice for their younger selves, Dench offers, “When in doubt—don’t.” The delicate question of getting old is especially poignant for Plowright, whose gradual loss of vision has now curtailed her acting career, but who still has plenty of sharp observations to contribute.
Fans of Downton Abbey will be pleased to see that Smith is as deliciously acerbic in real life as her alter-ego onscreen, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley. Although they may be shocked to learn that, while gifted with a box set of the entire series on DVD, she has never actually seen the show. But she does recall having to wear an uncomfortable period hat that was “huge—like the Albert Hall!” Meanwhile, Dench, best known these days for playing regal queens, tells of an encounter with a young male doctor whose tone was so patronizing, she was moved to issue a blistering, scatological retort.
Tea With the Dames is a welcome timeout between the season of men in tights and testosterone action thrillers and the more serious, Oscar-bait movies to come. Grab a crumpet, pull up a chair, and refresh yourself!
TEA WITH THE DAMES
***1/2 (out of four)
With Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins. A film by Roger Michell. (Not rated) 84 minutes.