When Tea With the Dames was brought to our collective attention we decided the only dames who should review were the Citizen Dames. Or, in the interest of time, at least one of the Citizen Dames. Tea With the Dames (also known as Nothing Like a Dame for the international audience) is an 83-minute spectacle of history, classiness, and fun, featuring four friends that don’t just represent the best of British acting; the Dames assembled here also represent the friendship goals you dream of. I only wish director Roger Michell had gone on with the feature longer, because this is documentary with subjects you’ll consume more time with.
British Dames Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench have been friends for decades, spending the years at each others’ houses to reminisce, gossip, and generally just be fantastic. This year “they let cameras in.” Thus starts Tea With the Dames, a documentary that isn’t so much about looking at the lives of these four extraordinary women – though that happens – but their friendship and their relationship to each other as they get older.
Honestly, if director Roger Michell advertised Tea With the Dames as leaving a camera in Joan Plowright’s house and capturing what unfolds, that’d be fine. The women are certainly snarky about being captured on-camera, or more having to be captured in a certain way. Maggie Smith, particularly vocal about the choreography that comes with cinematography, points out that a scene between her and Dench is ridiculous because “we’ve never talked this way.”
The feature balances Michell’s pointed questions about fear, growing older, and their individual lives, with unscripted footage of the women sitting around a dining room table asking the other to recall something. It is in these latter moments that true warmth is evoked because the audience is watching the ladies be natural. They poke fun at each other, particularly Plowright who was married to Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as the notions of becoming an older woman. There’s a relatable quality to these women, regardless of age. They are your moms, grandmothers, friends, even you. Hearing Judi Dench get indignant over a doctor treating her like a child hit me right where I live because, as a disabled woman, this happens to me frequently.
The women aren’t afraid to be off-the-cuff. They poke fun at critics who have left them bad reviews. Eileen Atkins, at one point, helps to identify an old photograph of Judi Dench based on her “tits.” These are moments that are only derived from people who have been friends for decades who feel comfortable, and why wouldn’t you? Plowright’s house that she shared with Olivier is the film’s base of operations and it’s absolutely beautiful, becoming a fifth character. Plowright, who retired from acting in 2014 due to a loss of eyesight, details the history of the house, sharing how it was a small place surrounded by nettles yet, as they grew older, it became a beautiful cottage. Moments of quiet beauty abound. Maggie Smith opining about visiting the cottage with her children, all of whom are now grown, is a wistful moment, as is the pall of hearing that actress Miriam Margolyes has already planned out her funeral and asked the others about theirs. Both Smith and Dench declare they want to work forever, but all four know that forever will never feel long enough.
It’s hard to ignore the sheer history these four women encompass in film and stage. Eschewing the traditional route of laying out the women’s lives verbatim, the women share snatches of their individual upbringings. Atkins, a child star who performed on-stage, humorously acknowledges that she was probably ripe for a pedophile growing up, while Plowright discusses how not being a great beauty fostered her love of performing. Plowright is especially vocal about her marriage, no surprise considering she was married to Laurence Olivier, however the other women seem incredibly guarded, particularly Dench. This wall easily passes for English discretion, but considering how frank everyone is, it would have been nice for Michell to ask more questions, particularly considering how much more success these women are compared to their previous husbands.
Dench and Smith seem to get the majority of the focus considering they’re the biggest names in the group and have the most success stateside (and, boy, do the other women never let them forget). Their close friendship is evident and, again, it would have been great for Michell to ask Plowright and Atkins how they feel about that. Dench and Smith are certainly amazing, being highly reminiscent of the characters they’ve played. Dench has a classiness to her, an inner quiet that takes in what her friends are saying. It’s also remarkable that Dench can recite monologues and verses from performances she did 50 years ago (and is shocked herself). Smith is forthright, and unafraid to make bold claims. But the most fascinating women are the ones we know least about. Atkins is cheeky while Plowright is introspective.
The movie isn’t even 90-minutes and it’s a shame because facts and discussions are brought up right till the end. It often feels like the conversation is dictated by the women, which is fine, but there’s nothing barbarous or particularly provocative in what they’re saying. Michell does bring up questions, but almost seems intimidated to go too far. Thankfully the film works well enough with the women themselves, but I wanted more, dammit!
If you’ve enjoyed any of these four women in their features you’ll eat up Tea With the Dames. The movie truly is akin to sitting down with your friends and having a great chat. I’d easily have watched a longer cut of this. I think us Dames have a great group to learn from.