From the director of Notting Hill comes a documentary that sounds like the schmaltziest, most quintessentially British affair imaginable. But while Roger Michell’s Tea With the Dames is relentlessly cosy, it steers away from expected tweeness and hagiography, offering instead a surprisingly poignant portrait of four renowned thesps who have been friends for 60-plus years. Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins meet up at Dame Joan Plowright’s home in the countryside and have allowed cameras to bear witness to their reminiscing, chatting and loving sass. Over the course of a taut 83 minutes, they reflect on stage fright, the warped beauty standards inherent to the entertainment business, sexism within the industry, their friendship and ageing. Their anecdotes are complemented by archive footage from their careers on stage and on film, which will delight fans; one clip even amusingly prompts Atkins to lovingly comment “You have very pretty tits here” with reference to Dench’s 20-year old cleavage.
Tea With the Dames isn’t the most cinematic experience and its charms will be just as potent on a smaller screen. But it’s worth it to see Dame Judi chuckling her way through the whole thing and dropping the F-bomb when the director mentions the topic of ageing, and to witness the Dowager Countess of Downton ask “Why didn’t anyone think of that a few hours ago?” when a bottle of champagne is brought out to substitute the tea. There’s also a deeply touching moment when the four women, sipping their champers around the table, dispense advice to their younger selves. Smith tenderly offers: “When in doubt, don’t”, while Plowright chimes in with: “It’s never too late”. Hats off to the Dames.
Tea With The Dames | Directed by Roger Michell (UK, 2019), with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright. Starts April 25.
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