By Gary M. Kramer.
The gentle, charming documentary, Tea with the Dames eavesdrops on the gossip, memories, and laughs shared by four grand British actresses: Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Eileen Atkins. Director Roger Michell films these longtime friends together, or in pairs, at Plowright’s “cottage,” asking questions about their work and their lives. He intercuts their stories with fabulous photos and performance clips that are likely unfamiliar to most fans.
The Dames start by discussing their early stage work. Atkins recounts being a dancer at a young age before she starred in a play at age 10. Judi Dench reveals that she was surprised that everyone in a cast was getting notes from the director but her, until she realized he was approving of her performance. She also recites a speech that she couldn’t remember when she had to perform it on stage decades earlier. Maggie Smith, who was not allowed to see films growing up (and got in trouble for seeing one on a Sunday) sings a song from a show called “Listen to the Wind.” The show’s terrible title does not go unnoticed. The Dames also discuss fear—likening it to petrol for an actress—and courage, and how they were often shaking inside when playing demanding roles such as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on stage.
These and other anecdotes will produce smiles from audiences, but the actresses on screen, Dench especially, laugh heartily. The camaraderie on display can be infectious, but some viewers might be less engaged. That said, it takes only a few minutes for the topic to change to something else that might be more appealing
For example, Joan Plowright discusses naturalism and Shakespeare, and how she doesn’t like a “modern” approach to the Bard. This yields an amusing story by Smith about Plowright’s husband, Laurence Olivier, getting his come-uppance when he took Smith to task for her pronunciation of vowels. Smith also explains how Olivier once hit her in a production that prompts a very witty observation.
Smith is, undoubtedly, the best storyteller in the film, and her timing is impeccable. At one point, she chastises an off-screen photographer for doing his job and taking her picture. Smith may be herself here, displaying a persnickety quality that is never abrasive, but certainly critical. When she complains about wearing hats in a production or doing reaction shots in Harry Potter, she is honest, but also understands and accepts the nature of show business. It is endearing.
Likewise, Judi Dench gets a few choice comments across, as when she is belittled by a young male medic after suffering a bee sting. His comments to her while well meaning, are insulting to anyone of a certain age, not just a Dame.
Tea with the Dames does include an episode on how each actress became a Dame, and Atkins’ story of almost turning the honor down is curious. How the actresses have gone from being young women judged on their looks to wearing hearing aids and having “about three good eyes between them,” is another theme in the film. Likewise, the roles women were forced to play as well as acting with their husbands are topics also addressed. Such collaborations may have helped or hurt their careers, it appears. It’s is a privilege, a nightmare, or a burden, depending on who Michell asks (and which spouse is being discussed). There is also a section of the film where the friends talk about critics, and how they don’t necessarily read reviews. The insights are not groundbreaking, but nor are they uninteresting.
What is more fun is when Smith and Plowright gang up on Dench claiming she gets the first opportunity at the best roles, while Plowright and Smith get the roles Dench turned down. It’s enjoyable to see the women poking fun at each other, and the film could have used more of that kind of spirited repartee.
And this may be the drawback of Michell’s documentary. There is little in the way of juicy gossip, and some topics—like raising a family while working as an actress—are given almost no attention, while perhaps too much time is spent on craft and ideas about truth and illusion. The film also feels a bit stagy, especially with the camera crew interrupting the actions from time to time.
Nevertheless, Tea with the Dames will enchant fans of the actresses, and it is nice to see them for who they are, swapping acting tips, or talking about milestones in their careers. It’s a nice documentary, but it is also far too slight and polite.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.