Nothing quite like a grand dame

Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench (IMDB)

Tea with the Dames is an immensely enjoyable documentary with four icons of British theatre, film and television sitting around together, reminiscing about life, and shared experiences. Source: ACOFB.

All have been close friends for five decades. Each is an acting great, aged over 80 - Joan Plowright (who is now blind), Judi Dench (who has severely impaired vision), Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins (both of whom comically banter about hearing) take tea on the lawn of a stately country home that Plowright once shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier. This is the first time the four women have appeared on the screen together, and the camera roams affectionately among them, as they converse in Plowright’s home over a summer weekend. All have been awarded British damehoods in recognition of their outstanding “service to drama”.

The four women talk freely, candidly, and humorously about their personal lives and their dramatic careers. This is a documentary about four famous people, who regularly meet “to remember and to laugh”, and are now doing what they do best in front of a camera. The result is a delightful, character-revealing documentary that is thoroughly entertaining.

There are many things to enjoy in this movie, but three stand out in particular.

One is the richness of memories. Both Plowright and Smith worked with Laurence Olivier. Plowright married him, and Smith worked with him, and it was Smith who was asked to come and hold Olivier’s hand when he was old and sick, while Plowright was away. The influence of Olivier permeates this film, and we learn much about the artifice involved in acting untruths.

A second feature of the documentary is the lack of confidence each has felt in their careers. Both Atkins and Plowright turned down an invitation to play Cleopatra. Dench agreed to the part, but asked whether the Director really wanted a “menopausal dwarf” to play the role. It is amazing that such powerful, stylish and clever actresses lacked confidence in what they did so well, but all attest to the fact that “fear generates (in them) energy that helps”.

The third feature of this documentary is its wonderful use of archival footage. We see film and theatre clips of the Dames in action in their prime. There is revealing footage of actual performances - from Henrik Ibsen’s Master Builder, to John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Henry V, and Othello, and in cinema to Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. There are multiple clips of rehearsals, and the Dames’ reactions to their critics.

This is an immensely enjoyable film that is directed cleverly and sensitively by Roger Michell, who never loses sight of the brilliance of the four he is directing. It is a funny, witty, and intelligent film about exceptional women, who are allowed to do their own thing, and they do it unsentimentally, and wonderfully well.

- Reviewed by Peter W. Sheehan (ACOFB)

Tea with the Dames: Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell. Rated M (Coarse language). 83 min.


Tea with the Dames


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