Judi & Maggie & Joan & Eileen: ‘Tea With the Dames’ is the Best 94 Minutes You’ll Spend All Day
My only regret about Tea With the Dames, an absolutely charming film that opens Sept. 21, is that they didn’t throw all caution to the wind and title it Dames At Tea.
That still would have been accurate, since the whole 94 minutes is conversation, at times over tea, among Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins — four British actresses whose work has earned them the official national designation of “Dame.”
It’s a funny word, “Dame.” Once it crossed the pond to America, it fell into the hands of good-natured wiseguys who wrote lyrics like “There is nothing you can tame / That is anything like a dame.” America’s quintessential user of the term was Frank Sinatra, who inserted “dames” into regular rotation with “chicks” and “broads.”
The dames in Tea hail from more another, more elegant universe. They’re theatrical royalty who have in more recent years also graced movies and television, and continue to do so well into their 80s.
Atkins, 84, has been featured lately in The Crown and Doc Martin. Smith, 83, will return next year in the Downton Abbey movie. Dench, 83, has three projects in post-production, and the only reason the 88-year-old Plowright isn’t working is that she’s had vision problems. She notes here that she still gets voiceover offers.
Tea With The Dames brings the four of them to a British country estate, where they sit down around an outdoor table to just chat, mostly about their lives and careers.
It’s not the kind of explosive talk that would set Instagram on fire. The pace at times is deliberate, and not every remark is a Lady Violet-style bon mot, because Tea With the Dames isn’t designed to showcase anyone’s greatest hits. It’s not scripted. It’s more like freeform random thoughts bouncing around among four people who like and respect each other — and who, collectively, have more than 300 years of first-person material to draw on.
No spoilers will be dropped here, but the viewer is strongly urged not to miss the Atkins anecdote that includes the phrase “terrible flirt.”
Director Roger Michell, whose previous work includes Notting Hill, does not position his cameras as flies on the wall. The crew gets into the action from time to time, and we see the dames pausing between conversational interludes to have makeup applied.
At one point, this being England and all, it starts to rain, and we see everyone dutifully trooping inside.
The conversation, which seems to have been filmed over the course of a day, isn’t linear and doesn’t travel to an endpoint. It’s more like a basset hound, cheerfully following its nose.
That said, much of it does reflect back on the actresses’ professional lives, with many of their recollections underscored by film and stage clips that go back to the ‘50s.
Those are as fascinating as one would expect: Atkins as a kind of gangly clown, Plowright with eyes the size of Scotland, Smith honing her exquisite comic timing and delivery in productions like Private Lives.
They all talk about the theater as their career foundation, and remember that at the time they were starting, no actor or actress would have imagined differently. Television and movies were somewhere between outliers and afterthoughts.
We’re also told, sometimes in subtle whispers, that from where they stood, their careers didn’t always feel like the unbroken triumphs we thought we were seeing from the outside. Atkins recalls being critiqued early in her career as “not pretty.” Dench can still quote reviews sharper than MacBeth’s dagger.
Smith has the most melancholy reflection. Asked what advice she might now give her younger self, she pauses a moment and says, “I’d say that if you’re in doubt, don’t.”
While the film probably has less than an hour of actual conversation, it’s still clear that this has been a much longer tea than those to which any dames are accustomed. By late afternoon the words have been said and it’s time to move on.
They all know cameras. That doesn’t mean they will want cameras at every tea from now on.
For viewers, something else will resonate here. After decades during which much of the commercial film and TV industry has worshipped youth, discarding actresses once they pass 30, here are four women, dames, who remind us how foolish that approach can be and what we miss when we take it.
There’s no sense they’re crusading. They don’t have to. The world is saturated with great stories about women, and men for that matter, who are 40, 50, 60 and up.
We embrace these women they have told the stories so well. Timeless and ageless. Who wouldn’t drink to that?