I’m sure I will see better, more elaborately structured and edited documentaries this year than director Roger Michell’s (Notting Hill, My Cousin Rachel) Tea with the Dames, but I doubt any will fill me with as much pure, elated joy as this weekend-long sit-down in the country with four of the greatest British actresses the world has ever known—Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins—who share their collective wisdom, stories of the stage and screen, and all manner of gossip and good-natured rivalry.
For decades before Michell’s cameras came into the picture, these four women gathered at a country estate in an undisclosed location to catch up, remember and just enjoy each other’s company. But now the filmmaker has brought along a few talking points to steer the conversation and gives these grand dames the chance to search their memories for choice anecdotes about their earliest years in the theater, their personal lives (Plowright was married to Sir Lawrence Olivier, so his name comes up frequently among all four women), and how they would like to be remembered. (Dench is hesitant to discuss legacy and confesses that she hasn’t made any arrangements for her passing since she doesn’t plan on ever dying.) Each of their careers is more impressive than the next—the multiple awards among them are a testament to that—and so the film feels like a discovery of pockets of their success that we Americans were never privy to, especially the stage work.
Thankfully, there is ample archival footage of all four of the women on stage and special televised performances, so we can marvel at them in their youthful exuberance, before they learned to find power in being understated. Smith admits that she’s never seen an episode of “Downton Abbey,” while Dench still marvels that she never found film success until her 60s with Mrs. Brown. With her sight largely gone, Plowright seems to speak the least but when she does, the wisdom she lavishes on the ladies is so marvelously to the point as to stun everyone into momentary silence. But it’s the less formal moments that bring out the greatest magic and the most biting wit, as when Smith berates Dench for not getting hearing aides despite her clearly needing them.
Tea with the Dames feels slightly stiff only because it’s clear that the dames don’t relish the idea of having these once-private moments captured on film. But as they have all of their careers, they make adjustments and focus on the task of being in the public eye once again. There’s really not much more to say about the extraordinary experience. You could read my accounts of their conversations or you could simply go hear them for yourself in all their endlessly entertaining glory. I promise you one of the more perfect movie-going experiences you’ll have all year.
The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park and is available on demand on iTunes, Prime Video and local cable systems.