Tea with the Dames (M)
Rating: 5 / 5
“Together, they’re 342 years old.”
That’s the first line of director Roger Michell’s synopsis of his new film Tea with the Dames.
The dames in question are four legends of stage and screen; English actors Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins.
From time to time they meet up to chew the fat, enjoy some reminiscing, and make some sharp and witty observations about people they have met.
To call this film a documentary is underselling it—it is a fly-on-the-wall experience allowing the audience to hear what would otherwise be private conversations between four famous English chums.
Michell is to be commended for his ability to persuade the dames to let the cameras in while they are being themselves, rather than their many characters. And given that Dench, Smith and Atkins are 83 and Plowright is 88 years young, it’s timely that he has made the film while these magnificent ladies are still strutting their stuff.
While our dames enjoy some sparkling and unguarded conversations, usually studded with some gentle digs at each other that reduce them to gales of giggles, Michell has also unearthed valuable archival footage of each dame in her youth, playing roles that helped them make their names.
Sixty years ago, British theatre and film was changing from specialising in the classics and nostalgia, to cutting- edge work, which needed a fresh new approach that these classically trained young actors were eager to embrace, and it’s fascinating to hear them reminisce about those times.
In these days of workplace bullying, it’s interesting to hear the dames candidly touch on this topic and who did what and how they learned to avoid certain people—a brave move in those days because directors had the power to make or break careers.
At one point, the dames decided to talk about their opinions on working with their husbands, and the answers are a mixed bunch. Dench adored working with actor husband Michael Williams (remember the television series A Fine Romance?). Maggie Smith asks the question “Which one?” as both her ex-husbands were in show business with her, while both Eileen Atkins and her ex-husband, actor Julian Glover, performed Bible readings in the English Salvation Army Christmas concert at the Albert Hall last year.
Then Dench, Smith and Atkins turn to Plowright and say that her husband was the most difficult to work with, a statement Plowright emphatically agrees with, adding that at least the other dames didn’t have to go home with him! Plowright’s other title was Lady Olivier, as she was married to Sir Laurence Olivier until his death in 1989.
Olivier ran the National Theatre for many years, so each of the dames worked with him and had stories to tell.
This is a thoroughly delightful film that achieves director Michell’s stated vision for it.
“I wanted these amazing women to do what they are all world champions at doing: talking, yacking, gossiping, reminiscing, reflecting, cursing, loving, praising and laughing. I wanted the film to make us feel like we’re eavesdropping.”
Highlight: Rare chance to hear acting legends chat candidly
Red flag: Occasional coarse language