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‘Tea With the Dames’ (review)

Produced by Sally Angel, Karen Steyn
Directed by Roger Michell
Starring Joan Plowright, Judi Dench,
Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins

 

In this delightfully informal documentary, a quartet of Dames who happen to be legendary British actresses – Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins – meet at Joan’s house in the country as they have done for decades.

Except this time, their dishy remembrances are captured on camera.

It’s a joy to share in how much they enjoy each other’s company and the good-natured teasing, such as how Judi gets all the good parts. Very little tea is drunk, but a lot of delicious tea is spilled.

They crack each other up frequently and sometimes exchange looks as if to say, “Well, we’re not going to talk about that.” They’re slightly contemptuous of the director and assistants fluttering about them as they set up.

The camera is constantly rolling, even when Maggie loses patience with a hovering still photographer and shoos him from the set. Or when she admits she’s tired. “You do know how old we are,” she says pointedly. Eileen is 84, Maggie and Judi will both turn 84 in December, and Joan turns 89 in October.

They’re of an age where they have trouble remembering, as Judi says, what she did last weekend, but can quote, by heart, dialogue memorized decades ago.

The most wonderful takeaway is not only their friendship and insights into acting, but how they don’t seem to take themselves seriously at all. The most surprising: That they still, after all these years and accolades, suffer from stage fright.

While they all began as stage actresses, each went on become film stars as well: Oscar-winning Judi Dench was, of course, M in the James Bond films. Maggie Smith has two Oscars and multiple Emmys for Downton Abbey, and was the stern Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter films. Joan Plowright, an Oscar nominee for 1991’s Enchanted April, is arguably most famous for her work with her late husband, Laurence Olivier.

Eileen Atkins is probably the least well-known to US audiences: She’s won a BAFTA, an Emmy and three Olivier Awards. Most recently, she played Queen Mary on The Crown. My favorite role of her is as the morbidly depressed Judith Starkadder in the 1995 British comedy Cold Comfort Farm.

One of the film’s highlights are the clips of their early performances. The most entertaining flashback: A saucy young Judi in a feather boa with a cigarette holder doing a cabaret number and singing about wearing “lace pants”!

The film is as unstructured as a real get-together of friends would be. The women reminisce about cruel directors and mean critics and share anecdotes from their various projects. (Judi and Maggie were in the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films; Judi, Maggie and Joan were in Tea With Mussolini; and Maggie and Eileen were both in Gosford Park.)

When the director asks, “Can you talk about working with your husbands?” no one is quick to respond. Joan, who had the most famous husband, of course, says drily, “Well, there’s a dead silence.” And Maggie adds, “I’m just trying to think which one!”

Joan admits Olivier was “difficult” and Maggie says, “We all found him tricky.” Maggie recounts playing opposite Olivier in Othello (yes, he donned blackface to play the character.) In one scene, she recalls, instead of a stage slap, he struck her quite hard. “I always say it’s the only time I saw stars in the National Theater,” she quips. (It’s no surprise that, as in Downton Abbey, Maggie has the most cutting and humorous lines in real life.)

They discuss making a start in acting when none of them were regarded as “conventionally pretty.”

Joan’s mother told her (in front of what appears to be a portrait of a young Joan), “You’re no oil painting, my dear, but you have the spark… and thank God you’ve got my legs and not your father’s.”

They also admit to suffering from nerves when driving to the theatre to do a show. Eileen says that she nearly always wishes for a terrible car crash so the show can’t go on. And even after making dozens of films, Judi and Maggie admit that the first day, or any day, on a set is nerve-wracking.

Judi was the first to be made a Dame and when it was Maggie’s turn, her advice was: “It doesn’t make any difference. You can still swear. In fact, you can swear more.” (We see footage of each of their ceremonies receiving the honor, with Maggie wearing a wonderfully Minerva McGonagall-esque hat.)

When asked to comment on growing old, the always frank Judi says, “Fuck off, Roger!” They joke about having maybe three good eyes between them. (Judi suffers from macular degeneration and Joan seems almost completely blind.) And they all have hearing aids, except for Judi, whom Maggie scolds for not getting them yet. “You need them, Judi!” she insists.

Even more scandalous: Maggie admits she hasn’t ever watched Downton Abbey. “They gave me a box set. But I haven’t got time. I’d better hasten. Because I won’t last long enough to see the wretched thing,” she whispers conspiratorially to Judi, whom she often calls “Jude.” (Maggie is “Mags” to her friends.)

You might need to brush up on your Shakespeare to get all the references; the film doesn’t always explain who or what is being name-dropped. But that’s a small criticism of this celebration of acting, the theatre, and these memorable, ever-so-salty dames.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

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