This conversational documentary in which a famed quartet of elderly British dame-actresses do nothing more than sit around and chat about their legendary stage and screen careers (among other things) is a rambling yet diverting affair, a gold mine of gossipy information and thespic insights spanning a period of several decades. These down-to-earth dames serve up some good-natured dish here, without pinkies extended. The four women – Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench – are familiar to American audiences to varying degrees. While the first two actresses have experienced limited exposure in mainstream movies stateside, the other more well-known two have each appeared in phenomenally successful film franchises (Smith in the Harry Potter series; Dench in several James Bond flicks as “M”) and both have been nominated multiple times for Oscars, even winning a few to boot. (As a testament to their enduring popularity, gifted mimic Tracey Ullman recently lampooned both Dench’s status as a “national treasure” and Smith’s brittle knack for comedy in her wonderful sketch show.) But the four actresses (now in their 80s) are all equals here as they spill the tea in a course of several get-togethers at the now-blind Plowright’s country estate – longtime friends and colleagues who appear to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
The film features some priceless archived footage of filmed theatrical productions in which these then-novices appeared during their early years, fresh-faced and brimming with untapped talent. While none were conventionally pretty in a Hollywood sense, each demonstrated she possessed a certain something, though their collective recollections about a shared recalcitrance to play the most beautiful woman of the ancient world in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra reveals much about their artistic sense of self-awareness. The relaxed chattering about the old days (frequently prompted by off-camera questions from director Michell) sometimes dredges up bittersweet memories about ex-spouses and bad reviews, but the tone remains light, buoyant, and sometimes acidly funny, with the occasional bombshell, such as Smith’s revelation that she’s never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey. That’s about as shocking as it gets here.
In the end, Tea With the Dames peters out as a conversation, given there’s no real beginning, middle or end to the film. It’s a privilege, however, to have been given a tableside seat to listen to this foursome reminisce and ruminate for an hour and a half, with laughter punctuating the conversation every few minutes. In the last scene, they switch from a teapot of Earl Grey to a bottle of bubbly. Raise a glass and make a toast to these gals, who prove there truly ain’t nothing like a dame.
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