On a rather dreary day, Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Hyde Park on Hudson”) and his crew sat down with Dames Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Judi Dench, and oh, what a joy it is to watch. Audiences familiar with the women should know what to expect with Michell’s delightful and touching “Tea with the Dames.” Bringing together the four extraordinary actresses, one could only hope for wisdom to be imparted and talent to be recognized. Devotees to the incomparable actresses’ work are given just that, plus a dash of witty comedy and natural conversation between dear friends.
Michell’s documentary on the incredible careers of four accomplished actresses, each having received the honor of Dame in Britain for services to drama, starts off with a style that may be a tad jarring to some viewers. Cutting between the Dames’ conversation and inserting archival footage into the film starts as a bit off-putting. Once the pace is set, however, the flow becomes expected and unsurprising, giving a glimpse of the actresses’ earlier days that many have never seen before. Unless, that is, you were in the playhouse for Dame Judi Dench’s astonishing rendition of William Shakespeare’s “Cleopatra.”
Nevertheless, Michell’s film is a fervent acknowledgment of the sheer talent represented by these women. They are, or ought to be by this point, household names. Each actress is given their due regarding the remarkable work and efforts within the field of drama. But just sitting for a day of tea with the Dames, you wouldn’t guess that they are best known for their serious, sometimes dour, acting work. They are each so aboundingly witty, so full of laughter and wisdom, it’s a shame, frankly, that a full day was condensed into the hour and a half running time. To just bear witness to the conversation between old friends is an absolute delight.
The best moments of “Dames” comes when the women aren’t given direction. There’s an instance when Smith and Atkins begin reciting the song “Timothy’s Under the Table” from “Listen to the Wind.” It’s random, it’s silly, and it’s the moments like this which brings a smile to one’s face. Still, Smith, Plowright, Atkins, and Dench are also shown to be actual human beings, despite their revered status. Dench throws the F-bomb around, and the four surprisingly discuss the nerves that come with every day on set or stage.
In spite of the film’s wonky structure, Michell still captures each woman with such respect. The homages to Laurence Olivier can become quite tiresome, but it is a testament to his place in each of their lives, especially Plowright’s, who was married to him for the remainder of his life. The four share hilarious stories of traveling to various countries to film “Tea with Mussolini.” Recalling how Plowright, Dench, and Smith drank an entire bottle of Prosecco and wandered about to find their hotel rooms. However, not every story is decades old. One moment fans will surely adore is Smith discussing the hit series, “Downton Abbey.” “I haven’t seen it,” she admits. “I shall have to hasten.”
Michell also captures their fears and concerns of the future. The Dames all continue working, with Smith taking on the upcoming “Downton Abbey” film and Atkins having worked on Netflix’s “The Crown,” for instance. However, when it comes to giving their younger selves advice, the women become emotional, a touching moment where monuments of the stage and screen are once again humanized.
“Tea with the Dames” is absolutely charming and surprisingly emotional. As viewers are welcomed into the garden of Plowright’s home, they will find a respite from the world, populated by four of the finest actresses we will ever see. There truly is nothing quite like a Dame. [B+]