Judi Dench. Maggie Smith. Joan Plowright. Eileen Atkins.
Together they are a combined 338 years old, and having started their careers in the 1950s, each possesses more acting experience than just about anybody else on the planet. They also all happen to be dames anointed by Queen Elizabeth II herself. Get those four together in a room and let the cameras roll—greatness is bound to show itself at some point. That seems to be the guiding principle behind Roger Michell’s Tea With the Dames, and you know what? He made the right call. This is some damn good coff—errr tea.
Essentially just an afternoon hangout sesh, Tea With the Dames is a breezy, often humorous affair. The longstanding friendship shared between the actresses is evident throughout, with fits of giggling and fond recollections making up the bulk of the lean 84 minute run-time. They reminisce about the early days – frequent use of archival footage fills in the gaps – as well as old jokes, lines, and individuals. One person frequently brought up: Laurence Olivier. He was Joan Plowright’s husband from 1961 until his death in 1989, and of course a titan of 20th Century British theatre. Dench, Smith, and Atkins all talk about how intimidated they felt acting alongside him; Smith tells a story about Olivier’s blackface makeup rubbing off during a production of Othello. Problematic portrayal aside, it’s a pretty funny anecdote and reminded me of this scene from Lethal Weapon 6.
They also talk about Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. They were all offered the role of Cleopatra at some point, with the biggest point of consternation being that none of them believed they were beautiful enough for the role. Plowright and Atkins ultimately refused to do the play, while Dench performed it later as a middle-aged woman (“menopausal dwarf,” she called it), and Smith did it in Canada, far away from the snobby British critics. They all agreed on two points: reading criticism was the worst thing an actor could do, and that fear was a great motivator.
Anybody who’s spent time around people their age knows how off the cuff and cantankerous they can be. One of the film’s funniest bits comes when Smith and Dench are asked to pose on a Victorian couch. They lambaste the director and photographer, complaining that nobody has ever sat on a couch in the manner they are asked to sit. Eventually Smith shoos the photographer away, whom she claims has taken enough photos for a lifetime. She also complains about how heavy the hats were in Downton Abbey, and admits she’s never seen the show.
All four dames offer moments of hilarity, but Dench is probably the funniest of the bunch. Pretty much everything that comes out of her mouth is gold, which might explain why she maintains the highest profile; at one point Plowright says her American agent told her she should look for voice acting roles that Dench hasn’t gotten her fingers on yet. Dench, of course, takes umbrage at the idea. And towards the end, when they talk about what it was like to receive the honor of damehood, Smith quotes Dench for another delightful tidbit: “You phoned me when it happened to me and you said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference—you can still swear!’”
If this all seems like a rather joyous time, it’s because Tea With the Dames is just that. I suppose people who need their documentaries to be in-depth exercises might walk away thinking, “That’s all?”—and I can kind of see it. If I have one complaint it’s that I wish the film was longer—but when the vibes are this good, it doesn’t really matter. Just sit back and be prepared to giggle along with them. Despite their age, they’re as lively as can be.