I suppose there could be a very specific niche market clamoring for feature-length documentaries about acclaimed British actresses sitting down for tea and small talk, but I would not have assumed that I was part of that demographic. And that’s what makes the surprising appeal of Tea With the Dames such an interesting conundrum — it seems like the kind of thing I wouldn’t go in for, but it proved far more engaging than I might have suspected. The success of this modest little film can only be ascribed to its subjects — Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright — four Dames that establish that title as something more than an honorific.
“Dame” certainly carries an altogether different connotation on this side of the pond, but the esteemed actresses at the heart of director Roger Michell’s documentary suit both definitions better than I ever understood. It’s not that their conversation is especially ribald — although it does veer in that direction on occasion; it’s that the refreshing frankness exhibited therein dispels any illusions of pretense. Michell captures not only the vastly differing personalities but also the very humanity of four women who have led almost incomparably interesting lives.
Perhaps the charm and wit of these octogenarian actresses are enough to carry the film, but it does feel on the slight side at times. I don’t know that I’ve ever said such a thing in a review, but this film could have been 20 minutes longer and I don’t think I would’ve minded in the least. Set in the garden of the quaint cottage Plowright shared with husband, Laurence Olivier — and moving inside once the English countryside weather turns predictably to drizzle — Tea does feature some archival footage and photographs from all four women’s illustrious careers, but it’s primarily made up of footage of them talking. And talking. And then talking some more.
But mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Listening to a group of living legends of both stage and screen talk about everything from crippling stage fright to institutionalized sexism to the equally famous men they shared their personal and professional lives with, one gets the sense of a very private gathering made public. It feels like a rare opportunity to get the inside dirt from a collection of women with no remaining incentive to keep mum about the facts. It’s also a window into the personas behind the performers, providing a level of intimacy that only serves to broaden their respective appeal. I mean, who knew that Maggie Smith was one of the most fantastic smart-asses ever? Or that Judi Dench referred to herself as a “menopausal dwarf” when cast as Cleopatra opposite Anthony Hopkins? It may not be revelatory in the strictest sense of that term, but Tea With the Dames was enjoyable enough to leave me wanting another cuppa.