In Tea with the Dames, Roger Michell gives us a snapshot into the lives of four impressive icons of the stage and screen.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Roger Michell’s Tea with the Dames is pretty much what you’d expect. It is a cordial documentary spent in the company of four utterly charming and gracefully weathered dames of the British Empire, who have spent their lives on the stage and screen and now appear on screen once again to speak candidly over cups of tea.
The ladies are Joan Plowright, who married the invincible Laurence Olivier in 1961 and retired in 2014 when her declining eyesight made acting impossible; Eileen Atkins, who surrendered a career in dance to recite Shakespeare; Maggie Smith, remembered by many as Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter movies; and Judi Dench, who reached cinema late in life and then gobbled it up.
According to an early blurb, all four women meet regularly to brush up on each other’s lives. This time, they’ve let the cameras and microphones in, an allowance they start regretting before the afternoon’s over.
It’s clear almost at once that they are immaculately private women. Their first conversation is awkward and quiet, with careful side-glances and uncomfortable silences. But as the day draws on and the talking moves from room to room, conversations begin to flow, sporadically prompted by Michell somewhere off-screen.
The women cover nothing of any real importance. Nothing that cannot be read off their Wikipedia pages or learned from old footage. They discuss their early days at The Old Vic, the magic and woes of marriage, growing old, the burden of superstardom. Sometimes they curse and other times they tease one another. You can tell they’ve had these conversations before, many times, and are tired of having to repeat themselves.
But they are tremendous sports, and brighten the camera as only such heroes can. It is precisely that they’ve known each other for decades that makes Tea with the Dames such a fascinating and enjoyable experience. Sometimes we’re not even interested in what they’re talking about, but the language they employ and the humour with which they deliver it endear us to their shared experiences.
There’s not much else to say about a documentary in which the characters do nothing but talk. I can only express how I felt while watching them, and I think I had a smile across my face for most of it. I certainly laughed a lot. And if you have an appreciation for beautiful, fiercely forthright ladies who know how to command the screen, you will too.
Tea with the Dames is available in Australian cinemas from June 7
Image courtesy of Transmission Films