Film Review: Tea with the Dames

Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Aileen Atkins in Tea with the Dames

Runtime: 87 minutes

Director: Roger Mitchell

In Tea With The Dames, director Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill) and a small film crew were given access to a reunion between four distinguished British actresses—Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Aileen Atkins—drinking tea and champagne at Plowright’s country house where she lived with her husband Laurence Olivier.

The story behind the set-up is that these four women have been life-long friends for decades and have worked together on stage and screen several times. The four have never appeared in a single film together; they have come closest in 1999’s Tea with Mussolini, which featured all but Atkins. Now in their eighties, and some in poor health (Plowright is blind and Smith wears a hearing aid), they share the screen as themselves. In this one-day get-together, they gossip about their early days in the theatre, their partners (on and off screen), their thoughts about critics, and aging. The film also features a range of archive footage—plays, television, movies, award acceptance speeches, interviews, and childhood photographs.

Although the gossip doesn’t build up to anything of importance, Tea With The Dames is a delightful time. Because the whole documentary was shot in one day, there is a feeling that the director had no organised method. After all, how can four women in their eighties share their life story in just one day? Still, there is a degree of entertainment from watching these icons interact with sardonic humour. All share memories of working with Plowright’s husband. While playing Desdemona in the 1965 film Othello, Smith was slapped by a black-painted Olivier, leaving a black patch on her cheek. She would even apply the eyelashes on Olivier’s face and jokingly say, “How now, brown cow?” Plowright describes being married to the thespian as “a nightmare” and “a pleasure”.

These women are very funny and not afraid to use colourful language. Even Smith herself says becoming a dame doesn’t make any difference—she still gets to swear. When Mitchell asks the four dames how it feels getting old, Dench bluntly replies, “Fuck off Roger”. Their honesty is very refreshing. The actresses even rib each other for taking each others’ parts. Plowright says should she ever want to return to screen acting, her American agent might be able to land her a cameo that Judi Dench doesn’t have her paws on.

Aimed for a television transmission in the UK after a limited theatrical run, the movie doesn’t offer any rich material. The lack of insight into these women’s films or acting method may frustrate some cinephiles. Still, it is a rarity seeing such renowned performers like these bonding like regular people. If you love actors, especially these four icons, this is a real charmer.

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