Tea with the Dames chronicles a “gossip meeting” between four English acting legends, and comes from prolific director Roger Michell, but those Dames and their stories are the reason to catch it, of course.
With footage seemingly captured during one day at the rural home of the pretty much retired Dame Joan Plowright (89 this year), we watch as her longtime chums Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Eileen Atkins (all 84 this year) gather to chat about their careers, their childhoods, their late husbands, their stage and film experiences, and more in disorganised, rather rambling detail.
That’s hardly surprising, however, as this is really just a chatty get-together, and these Dames aren’t exactly young anymore: Plowright endures bad eyesight and hearing, Dench is almost blind, Smith has hearing aids (she offers one to Plowright for a gag) and Atkins jokes about getting old. Smith, however, isn’t having any of that though, so when we hear the director’s off-camera voice asking them to talk about getting on a bit, she snipes, “Oh f*** off, Roger!”
Early on they discuss growing up, with Atkins explaining how being forced into learning ballet led her into acting, Dench mentioning how her Quaker upbringing meant going to the movies was a no-no, Smith reminiscing about getting into performing at Oxford and Plowright recalling how her mother once said that she was no great beauty. They all laugh, remembering how they’ve all been previously labelled as less than gorgeous over the years, but this turns later into a fairly meaty conversation about the sexist ways the four have been treated by directors, fellow players, journalists and many others.
There’s a lovely montage of their film, theatre and TV appearances in the ‘60s (set to the tune of the Rolling Stones cover of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away), with Atkins noting that she once went to an anti-Vietnam demonstration with Vanessa Redgrave and barely made it out before the arrests began. And if casually throwing Vanessa into the discussion seems like name-dropping then, well, these Dames have a right to name-drop: Dench smiles about acting with ‘Tony Hopkins’ and Smith has worked with everyone but mostly restrains herself. Mostly.
However, the one big name you probably know is coming is introduced with serious caution: Plowright’s ex-husband Sir Laurence Olivier, who worked with all of them at one time or another (he whacked Smith for real during performances of Othello at the National Theatre) — and yes, they were all somewhat terrified of him. Plowright seems very sad when she describes “sharing his life” as a privilege “and a nightmare”.
And if they’re “getting old” they’re certainly not giving up. Dench is seen as M in Skyfall and says she was encouraged to be in James Bond movies by her late husband Michael Williams (he wanted to be married to a “Bond girl” but had to settle for Bond’s boss), and Smith’s Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter movies is also shown, as well as her Violet Crawley in TV’s Downton Abbey (“The hats were as big as the Albert Hall!”, she jokes).
The last 20 minutes struggle for structure and to keep the ladies going (“You’ve tired us out!”, Smith scolds), leaving time for you to wonder if there’ll ever be Dames like these again. Three of the four might still be going strong (or as strong as they can), but it does seem like the end of an era. When Dench reads a passage from The Tempest to wrap things up, you’ll probably feel a chill.
Rated M. Tea with the Dames is in cinemas now.