TEA WITH THE DAMES
Director: Roger Michell
Dame Eileen Atkins
Dame Judi Dench
Dame Joan Plowright
Dame Maggie Smith
Runtime: 84 mins.
Australian release date: 7 June 2018
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 7 June 2018.
Roger Michell’s Tea With The Dames (aka Nothing Like A Dame) is set in a beautiful English garden in West Sussex, at least it is until the heaven’s open. Four of England’s most revered actresses, all octogenarians and all Dames of the British Empire, are gathered together for an unscripted chat to reminisce about their lives, both on and off the stage. As the rain begins the four women head indoors to continue their amicable ruminations, cherishing a friendship they have enjoyed for over half a century. At one point during the film, Judi Dench recites a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on.’ And indeed, this awesome foursome certainly is the stuff of dreams!
Her companions, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright (who owns the country manor) and Eileen Atkins, were fledgling actresses in the 1950s and all went on to become acting greats in film and television, having begun their careers on the stage. Michell, director of Notting Hill and last year’s My Cousin Rachel, has unearthed some wonderful footage of early performances and the women speak frankly about their various roles, some successful and some not. There is a fascinating scene where they fess up about whether or not they bother to read their reviews. In another candid moment, Smith reveals that she had a fractious relationship with Plowright’s husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, in the early stages of her career and subsequently all confess they were somewhat scared of the great actor.
At times, the enthralling discussion vainly attempts to remain on track as the women admit to failing memories and hearing, not surprising considering their ages, but all remain incredibly sharp and astute. Smith, in particular, comes up with some hysterical, sarcastic rhetoric that is in keeping with many of her acting roles, but she’s not alone in regaling us with amusing anecdotes. One of the funniest is when someone tells the group a story about nailing a kipper underneath a table as a parting gift for an unreasonable landlord! Atkins reminds Dench of their “wild ways” back in the late 1950s and says they “didn’t really need the ‘60s” to be liberated. Plowright, who is now almost totally blind, holds court as only a real Dame can. They also discuss the importance of relationships and children and at one stage, when talking of husbands, one says ‘which one?’ referring to her numerous marriages.
This is a terrific documentary on a number of levels. It is not only a moving walk down memory lane but also a delightful depiction of friendship. The women are, even in their latter years, true thespians and their repartee is joyous. All of them have been the recipients of multiple awards and you get the impression that they are not finished with their careers yet, while acknowledging their advancing years. Smith admits to being presented with a box set of Downton Abbey but not watching a single episode. She goes on to say she had better hurry up! Atkins, who is not such a household name in Australia, claims that she was not considered a natural beauty when young, which is met with snorts of friendly derision from her gal-pals who accuse her of expecting them to disagree, but admits to feeling vindicated when she overheard a director refer to her as ‘sexy’. The collective laughter following some of these tales is completely infectious.
In the publicity handbill, Tea With The Dames is described as, ‘candid, funny, caustic, irreverent, poignant and utterly engrossing … proof that there is truly nothing like a Dame.’ It’s even more than that, it is joyful and unpredictable and there’s not a cuppa in sight - you get the feeling that these old Dames embrace the bubbles at the end of the session. They certainly deserve it!