Tea with the Dames

TEA WITH THE DAMES. Starring: Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell. Rated M (Coarse language). 83 min.

This film has been classified under the title, NOTHING LIKE A DAME, and is a documentary with four icons of British theatre, film and television sitting around together, reminiscing about life, and experiences shared together over half a century. All have been close friends for five decades.

Each is an acting great, aged over 80 - Joan Plowright (who is now blind), Judi Dench (who has severely impaired vision), Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins (both of whom comically banter about hearing) take tea on the lawn of a stately country home that Plowright once shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier. This is the first time the four women have appeared on the screen together, and the camera roams affectionately among them, as they converse in Plowright’s home over a summer weekend. All have been awarded British damehoods in recognition of their outstanding “service to drama”.

The four women talk freely, candidly, and humorously about their personal lives and their dramatic careers. This is a documentary about four famous people, who regularly meet “to remember and to laugh”, and are now doing what they do best in front of a camera. The result is a delightful, character-revealing documentary that is thoroughly entertaining.

The four talk about growing old, love, life, theatre and cinema - and share anecdotes about life as they have experienced it. They talk about ageing, the men in their life, and the perils of people they have had to work with. The jokes they share with each other are comically timed in delivery in ways that have made each of them famous.

There are many things to enjoy in this movie, but three stand out in particular.

One is the richness of memories. Both Plowright and Smith worked with Laurence Olivier. Plowright married him, and Smith worked with him, and it was Smith who was asked to come and hold Olivier’s hand when he was old and sick, while Plowright was away. The influence of Olivier  permeates this film, and we learn much about the artifice involved in acting untruths.

A second feature of the documentary is the lack of confidence each has felt in their careers. Both Atkins and Plowright turned down an invitation to play Cleopatra. Dench agreed to the part, but asked whether the Director really wanted a “menopausal dwarf” to play the role. It is amazing that such powerful, stylish and clever actresses lacked confidence in what they did so well, but all attest to the fact that “fear generates (in them) energy that helps”.

The third feature of this documentary is its wonderful use of archival footage. We see film and theatre clips of the Dames in action in their prime. There is revealing footage of actual performances - from Henrik Ibsen’s “Master Builder”, to John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”, to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, “Henry V”, and “Othello”, and in cinema to Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall”. There are multiple clips of rehearsals, and the Dames’ reactions to their critics.

This is a film that is personal, poignant, warm, human and nostalgic. Each Dame has experienced personal triumphs and tragedy in life. They all have good stories to tell, and they tell them in the way they know best. Threading through the women’s interactions is a sense of mischievousness that has made each of them famous. Characteristically, Plowright is insightfully witty, Dench’s humour is smart and barbed, Atkins is dismissively wry, and Smith is delightfully acerbic. 

This is an immensely enjoyable film that is directed cleverly and sensitively by Roger Michell, who never loses sight of the brilliance of the four he is directing. It is a funny, witty, and intelligent film about exceptional women, who are allowed to do their own thing, and they do it unsentimentally, and wonderfully well.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and  Broadcasting

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Released May 7th., 2018

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