Tea with the Dames opens with a message on the screen: “From time to time four old friends, all extraordinary actresses, meet up in the English countryside to gossip, to remember and to laugh. This time they let the cameras in…” The actresses are Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, and Joan Plowright. I agree that they are extraordinary and that they share some extraordinary stories. However, as far as “letting the cameras in,” which to me implies a fly on the wall observation of their tea parties, I was a little disappointed.
It’s all so obviously staged. The cameras are sometimes part of a scene, as are assistants touching up makeup, brushing hair, or delivering a drink. At one point, after being positioned on a couch, Dench asks, “When have we ever sat like this?” This aspect of the movie is oddly artificial. We’re getting a good behind-the-scenes/making of type documentary, but we’re certainly not getting access for an event to which we feel like we’ve been exclusively invited. This is a minor gripe. What’s important is what these women have to say.
Tea with the Dames leaves with me an impression of what each woman might be like in real life. For example, Smith is hilarious, her off the cuff remarks as funny as her scripted lines in any number of comedic roles. (She also looks much less frail and decrepit than she does in Downton Abbey. She’s as vital as she’s ever been and I hope to see her taking part in many more projects.) Also, Dench seems shy, visibly nervous as “herself,” fidgeting with her hands and frequently putting them over her mouth.
There are two common themes that recur among all four women: beauty and fear. For example, on the subject of beauty, none of them thought they were pretty enough to portray Cleopatra on stage (yet I believe almost all of them, if not all, actually did.) Also, as a child, an acting coach told Atkins’ mother that she might be good at the craft, but that he was concerned about her looks. On the subject of fear, when asked if first days on stage or on set are scary, they agree that, “All days are scary.” Also, on stage, they were commonly afraid of the directors.
That’s understandable, I suppose, considering they each worked with Sir Laurence Olivier at one time or another. Coincidentally, Olivier was Plowright’s husband for over 28 years until he died in 1989. The other three women don’t miss any opportunity to jab Plowright about her spouse. At one point, the conversation shifts to the subject of method acting, which this group considers utter nonsense. To them, acting is all about harvesting your emotions to deliver a natural performance, not embodying a fictitious character for the duration of a project.
I could go on retelling my favorite stories; each of the four women delivers one. Doing so, though, might deprive you of discovering any surprises or joys for yourself. There’s one I can’t resist. When one of the filmmakers asks them to talk about growing old, Smith promptly scolds him with a perfectly British, “F-off!” That’s interesting because we’re probably familiar with these women from their roles in later life. Tea with the Dames is full of vintage photographs and video clips from when they were young. It’s like you’re meeting them for the first time.