Film Review: Tea with the Dames

You couldn’t be in better company than these four theatrical giantesses in this often delightful but sometimes frustratingly glib doc.
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One of the more intriguing “knees-up” in film history, this recorded group conversation brings together four knighted divas of the British theatre: Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright. Their combined years of acting exceed two centuries at least, but what is impossible to enumerate is the sheer pleasure they have given audiences over that time.

Admittedly, none of them were ever conventional, classic beauties—although many of their roles called for just that quality. However, what they possessed was more than mere prettiness and, indeed, the many archival photos and film clips that punctuate Roger Michell’s film reveal each one to have been, in their day, a veritable knockout. So familiar are all of them to us that, for all their regal eminence and accomplishment, what they most come off as are a bunch of favorite aunts.

Smith is her recognizable, quick-witted, redoubtable self, her flawless timing undiminished, even as she suddenly notices Dench’s tan. Dench is as impishly entrancing as ever, with that golden rasp of a voice, alive with merriment as she recounts her theatrical boarding house landlady caught screwing a tenant on the breakfast table, crying, “Oh, sir, you must think me a dreadful flirt!” Atkins’ piercing intelligence and realness illuminate her every word, as they always did her performances. And it soon becomes apparent that Plowright is now blind, something which might be tragic but never is here, so indomitable and inspiring is her unquenchable life spirit.

As tea becomes eventually exchanged for champagne (“We could have used that earlier!” Smith exclaims), although exhausted by the filming (at some point or another, each dame reminds of her age) the ladies rally and their words become deeper, less communally jocose. The hallowed name of Laurence Olivier is evoked once more—he is a regular leitmotif here—and Plowright, who was his third and final wife, says that it was both a privilege and “a nightmare.” Smith has the most pungent input, remarking how, although terrified of him as everyone was, she managed to hold her ground in what she deems a “merry battle.” During Othello, he literally knocked her out, resulting in her comment, “That was the time I saw stars at the National Theatre.” After he told her her vowels were dodgy, she saw him being made up in blackface to play the tragic Moor and greeted him with “brown cow.” (“Better” was his mere response.)

This emphasis on Olivier in Tea with the Dames actually points up the film’s weakness, as Michell‘s queries could have used more range and depth. The ladies are never asked, for instance, about working with the other two great gods of the British stage, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and in the case of Plowright, the omission of any mention of Vivien Leigh, the wife whom Olivier left for Plowright (which destroyed Leigh), is rather glaring.

It must be said, however, that the rewards far outweigh the weaknesses, and delicious conversational moments abound among these quick-witted femmes, especially when Smith’s claim that Dench grabs all the best roles is backed up by Lady Olivier Plowright, who says her American agent told her that despite her blindness, he still might be able to get some cameo roles for her—those which “Judi Dench hasn’t gotten her paws on.” “How rude!” Dench protests. “But true!” the other two assent, with a hilarious mixture of rue and humor.

Smith has tenderer moments, recalling her sons by her ex-husband, troubled actor Robert Stephens, “these little people running about...and yes, we were the golden couple for a while.” A touching montage follows, showing the actresses offstage with their kids. Smith recalls working with these ladies’ great forebear, Dame Edith Evans, who would always complain, “I’m so lonely!” and laments that she feels the same and would have been nicer to Evans back then. (I do cherish an anecdote about how the two were warring during Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. The Supremes’ “Baby Love” had just dropped, and Smith would drive Evans crazy by playing it at top volume and dancing around her adjacent dressing room.)

But her inimitable saltiness returns as she recalls stealing much of her comic style from the brilliant, waspish gay actor Kenneth Williams. And how, though being given a complete boxed set of “Downton Abbey,” she has no plans to ever watch it. (“I won’t last long enough to see the wretched thing, will I?”)