Movie Review: ‘Tea With Dames’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Just what happens when four legends of the British acting community gather for tea (and champagne) in a cottage nestled away in the English countryside? Tea With the Dames endeavors to show us mere mortals, joining Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright at one of their regular afternoon get-togethers as they reflect on their careers, lives, and friendships. Largely unstructured—save for a few guiding questions from director Roger Michell—the conversations range widely. By turns gossipy and introspective, playful and profound, the four actresses provide enough of a glimpse into their lives to satisfy while also whetting the appetite for further installments.

American viewers will perhaps find Dench and Smith the most recognizable faces in the group, thanks to their appearances in international hits like the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. For the younger or less familiar viewers, however: rest assured that Atkins and Plowright loom just as large in their profession, with a slew of film and stage awards between them. Casual though they may be, the women’s reminiscences play out as a master class not only in acting, but in wit and charm as well. In recounting their early career in theater, all four recall their brushes with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Plowright and Atkins confess to feeling intimidated by the role, to which Smith quips: “So did I; that’s why I did it in Canada.”

The banter keeps coming. When prompted to reflect on acting with their respective husbands (Plowright was married for nearly 30 years to Laurence Olivier, with whom she had three children), one of the women asks: which one? More serious moments serve as counterpoints to the anecdotes and gossip, though. Maggie Smith admits, “We’re [always] shaking inside,” when performing, delicately refuting the notion perpetuated by critics that with time comes a full sense of confidence or ease on stage. Several such moments of vulnerability remind us that the women responsible for decades of incredible film and stage roles also raised families, built marriages, coped with difficult co-workers, and grappled with the constant judgement that accompanies performing arts.

Only one shortcoming mars Tea With the Dames, and that is the decision to break up their conversation with generic montages of family pictures or awards ceremonies. Used more judiciously, these extracurricular materials appear a touch maudlin or contrived when presented next to the breezy friendship between four talented women.

Nonetheless, this opportunity to spend a little over an hour with four Dames who have each left an indelible mark on the stage and in cinema will charm even the most casual admirer. Tea With the Dames gives a delightfully honest look into the memories of acting greats without ever feeling intrusive or salacious. Their moments of reflection and scholarship (a brief debate about the delivery of Shakespearean language and what constitutes a naturalistic performance both then and now fascinates) remind viewers why these women are so accomplished, while their crackling wit and charisma remind us why we’ve grown to love them over the years. One can only hope we’re invited back for another drink soon.

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