Sometimes titles really tell you everything. “Tea with the Dames” is just that. Four of our most renowned thespians gather for tea in a picturesque home in the English countryside. Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright are all magnificent subjects for such an informal interview and documentary. It’s not just because the four are all masters of the craft (although that helps). The conversation fascinates particularly because all four women are around the same age and were contemporaries for much of their careers. “Tea with the Dames” is hardly a groundbreaking documentary to watch. However, for fans of the craft of acting and of these legends, it’s a can’t miss.
Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) appears to be the biggest fan of these four Dames. He lovingly shoots their conversation with warm, glamorous lighting. There’s a sense of energy that one wouldn’t normally associate with a tea between four octogenarians. On top of keeping the conversation flowing, Michell also nicely accompanies their insights with amazing clips that date back to the 60s of their stage work. It’s a treasure trove of new video footage, which is exciting to see.
Michell isn’t the only fan of the group. All four women genuinely appear to be big fans of each other. It is interesting to hear how many roles they’ve shared over the years. One fascinating segment involves each Dame sharing her experience with Shakespeare and naturalism. They share a common passion and expertise in the same pieces thanks to their extensive work in the theater.
They’ve been so entrenched in each other’s careers that they became close in their personal lives. Many of the women recalled their working experiences with Laurence Olivier, who was Joan Plowright’s husband. This interplay was fascinating to watch and helped unearth more fun tidbits and stories.
However, does the title take on a double meaning? Somewhat. These ladies aren’t above talking some tea about one another. Joan Plowright, specifically, nails a line where she tells Judi Dench that the rest of them are merely trying to get the roles she turns down. Dench replies with a huff that there is plenty to go around. There are very few outright shady moments between the four legends. However, it is interesting to hear them compare careers and talk specifically to Smith and Dench, who have appeared in franchise films like Harry Potter and James Bond.
In the end, “Tea with the Dames” only applies to hardcore fans. Those expecting “Downton Abbey” or “Skyfall” gossip should head back to the IMDb fun facts section. Instead, the conversation delves more into theater and craft. Early clips further underscore the breadth and talent of these four legendary ladies. It’s great that we have documentaries as hyper-targeted to certain interests as these. For the audience that’s rabid to see Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins compare Cleopatra performances, one can’t do better than “Tea with the Dames.” Overall, the piece feels a bit like an elongated “Hollywood Reporter” roundtable. However, what’s wrong with that?