My only regret is that it did not last longer.
Director Roger Michell extends an exclusive invitation into a world few would dare dream to tread in his funny, unapologetically honest, and often eye-opening new documentary Tea with the Dames.
Once a year, Dames Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Eileen Atkins gather for tea, you see, and this year they allowed Michell and his crew to join them to give their fans a glimpse into a friendship that has spanned six decades.
Over the course of a sometimes rainy day at the country cottage built by Dame Plowright and her late husband, Lord Laurence Olivier, the four women opened up about that friendship and their lives both in and out of the spotlight.
Indeed, nothing seemed to be off limits that rainy afternoon, as time lost its linear bindings and reminiscences gave way to candor and more than a little gossip.
Not one woman among them ever dreamed of acting in films, it seems. They trained to work on the stage, and Michell wisely intercuts scenes from some of their extraordinary theater roles to remind us of their abilities and presence, even as they faced down their inner doubts and the monster that is stage fright.
“Are you sure you want to cast a menopausal dwarf?” Dench recalls asking the director when she was offered the role of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra while Atkins admits that she turned down the role four times and Smith concedes that she left the country to play the role so that no one would see it.
“We are not in the first rank of world beauties,” Plowright bluntly professes in reply, and proceeds to share “words of wisdom” from her late mother. “You’re no oil painting, my girl, but you have lovely, expressive eyes and thank God you got my legs and not your father’s.”
It’s a moment that that is both tender and bittersweet.
There are many such moments throughout Tea with the Dames, but never fear, these ladies never approach maudlin. They are far too put together for all of that.
Michell, for his part, wisely stays out of their way throughout the film, allowing the Dames to reminisce without too much interference. He does pose a question, however, from time to time with all too often comedic results.
“Can you talk about getting older,” he asks at one point.
“Oh f*** off,” Dench replies and they each in turn harangue him for his impertinence in asking such a question before acquiescing as if it was their own idea to broach the subject.
They are all too aware of the ravages of age. Plowright has lost her sight entirely, and Dench opened up in 2012 to the fact that she had been diagnosed with macular degeneration, which also leads to blindness. They speak of aches and pains and loss of hearing before once again haranguing Michell and moving on to other topics.
Lord Laurence Olivier, himself, was the source of more than one tangent brought on by Michell’s questions throughout the film. Plowright married the storied actor after they starred together in The Entertainer, but all of the women worked with him more than once, and as Smith recalls, it was always “tricky” and they laughed together at his special lighting cues which required the spotlight to literally shine brighter on himself when he entered the stage so that the rest of the cast looked shadowed.
At the end of Tea with the Dames, my only regret is that it did not last longer, and I was reminded of just how vibrant these four women are as Dench, in voiceover, quoted Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“Our revels now are ended: These our actors—,
As I foretold you—, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: we are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…”
"Tea With the Dames" is an exclusive engagement at Landmark’s Ken Cinema. It opens Friday, October 12.