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The cinematic equivalent of a “nice cuppa tea,” as we say here in the old country, the lovely, free-associative documentary Tea With the Dames offers a group portrait of four preeminent British actors in, to quote one of the women’s most famous roles, their collective prime, or at least not far beyond it. Each of the stars — Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith — has had the title Dame bolted onto her name now by Queen Elizabeth II, the female equivalent of being knighted, an honor they all wear with casual indifference, almost a slightly embarrassed contempt.
Even so, the film’s presentation to markets outside the U.K. has tended to gin up the royalty factor, presumably to further impress awed colonials and others. (The original title, Nothing Like a Dame, sort of poked fun at the ennobling stuff.) In any event, for these four subjects, it’s their actual long, fruitful, storied careers that crown them, and this highly competent, sadly over all too quickly work makes a good effort at profiling them without exhausting itself with either hagiography or completist excess.
It transpires that the four of them get together every year for a reunion at Plowright’s country cottage in Sussex, a home she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. Once assembled, the ladies catch up with each other, gossip and recollect, prompted occasionally by questions voiced offscreen occasionally by director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus).
One senses from the conversation that, although known best for their work in film, it’s their theater work that’s held in the highest esteem, the realm in which they truly cut their teeth and developed their craft. No one quite says it, but it’s pretty obvious they mostly consider their film and TV work, especially the more recent gigs, as little more than jobs for hire, money earners that barely count in the big scheme of things, although the money is jolly useful.
Smith, just as imperious as you would expect but also warmer and funnier and with a more “common” accent, admits that she’s barely even watched Downton Abbey, the series where she plays the frosty dowager Countess of Grantham. Her memories are fonder of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which she co-starred with Judi Dench. When prompted to think back to her years on the set of the Harry Potter franchise, she remarks that it was mainly a chore for her and co-star Alan Rickman to find new facial expressions for their many reaction shots.
Smith admits that she doesn’t quite remember all the details of those halcyon days when she and Dench first met in the 1950s and traveled up to Edinburgh together to work the festival there. But luckily, there’s archive footage and still photographs aplenty to show us what they were like back in the day, including a delicious and revealing clip of Smith explaining how she steals all her comic tricks from old friend and Carry On legend Kenneth Williams. Elsewhere, rare glimpses of Dench playing Titania in a Peter Hall production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Smith starring opposite Oliver in Othello, Plowright as Joan of Arc and Atkins as a slinky West End star are all worth the price of admission alone.
The latter two, even though they are less famed than Dench or Smith, especially outside the U.K., are not slighted, and the film provides viewers who may be less up to date with their work helpful primers on their careers. Plowright, who alludes to her somewhat tempestuous but long-running marriage to Olivier, is frank about her tougher path to fame. Like Atkins and Dench, who at one point describes herself as a “menopausal dwarf” who wouldn’t be an obvious choice to play Cleopatra, Plowright talks without self-pity about her unconventional looks, which spurred her to try even harder at achieving respect within the theater community.
The assembled dames are so smart, witty and strong-willed, it’s a wrench to have to part company from them at the end of the film. Many viewers might feel disappointed that the footage isn’t allowed to run on longer, revealing for instance what the performers make of sexual politics in the industry now, having lived through a time when the casting couch was normal operating procedure. Hopefully somewhere there’s a hard drive securely storing all the unused material enabling a special extended cut — maybe years in the future when the stars have sadly passed.
Production companies: Field Day Films, Kew Media Group
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith
Director: Roger Michell
Producer: Karen Steyn
Executive producers: Sally Angel, Jamie Carmichael, Debbie Manners, John Schmidt, Anthony Wall
Director of photography: Eben Bolter
Editor: Joanna Crickmay
Music supervisor: Anne Miller
Sales: Kew Media Group
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