Simply put, Tea With the Dames (that’s Nothing Like a Dame to our friends across the pond) is utterly delightful. Director Roger Mitchell’s (Notting Hill, Le Week-End) spirited eavesdropping session with four of Great Britain’s most illustrious leading ladies is the otherworldly breath of fresh air you didn’t know you needed. At a quaint English cottage, four of the island’s most distinguished stars of stage and screen (dames Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, and Maggie Smith) gathered to share a pleasant afternoon, swapping memories and arguing over the scattered minutiae of their remarkable careers. There is nothing terribly original about this fluffy documentary, and yet this naturalistic, uncluttered conversation between some extraordinarily enchanting octogenarians about their work and friendship is one of the year’s most captivating trips to the cinema.
So much of the runtime is devoted to capturing the sheer joy that springs forth when these immeasurable talents get together for afternoon tea. These mystical starlets have been intertwined in each other’s lives for decades, and they know precisely how to make one another (as well as the viewers) howl with laughter, swearing up a storm and making catty remarks about former co-stars and colleagues with crisp comic timing. It is endlessly entertaining to witness the incomparable Maggie Smith throwing shade, particularly when recalling being actually slapped by Laurence Olivier (Plowright’s late husband) during each performance of Othello: “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”
But it certainly isn’t all acerbic commentary and laughs. Tea With the Dames is often an insightful display of the hardships the dames had to endure as women, both in and out of their profession. We are shown the ancillary hurdles that had to jump over in order to achieve even a morsel of success, as is evidenced through a portrait of young motherhood and a recollection of disparaging comments made about their appearance (“She’s not what you would call pretty.”). When discussing a 17-year-old paramedic who patronized her the previous year, Judi Dench recalls sharply retorting, “Fuck off! I’ve just done eight weeks in The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick.” Late in the runtime, Mitchell, who had being steering the conversation by shouting conversation topics from offscreen, prompts the women to provide advice they would give to their younger selves. It is in their earnest responses where they genuinely reflect on the unnecessary adversity placed upon them, and how they were able to work to overcome it.
While Tea With the Dames is assuredly a must for anyone with even the slightest interest in the industry, it is sure to connect with any viewer with an affinity for the subtle humanity of accomplished storytelling. Dench, Plowright, Atkins, and Smith each get their moment to be the film’s centerpiece, reminiscing about their humble beginnings and remembering biting digs from early negative performance reviews. As an accompaniment to their harrowing words, Mitchell has unearthed a bountiful wellspring of archival material. Vintage footage and photos thrust the narrative through the bulk of the 20th century, highlighting the 1960s as both a hotbed of cultural revolution and a vibrant boom in English stage work.
Lovely and lively, Tea With the Dames has positively no fat on its bones. In fact, at a scant 83 minutes, the film’s most egregious sin is that there isn’t more of it. Roger Mitchell could easily have made a full-length series out of this wistful gossip sesh amongst a quartet of lifelong friends who just so happen to be living legends. This fly-on-the-wall conversation piece is likely the closest we’ll ever come to seeing these seasoned thespians with their guard truly down. While it doesn’t do much in propelling the medium forward, Tea With the Dames is just about as entrancing a film as you could come across. Furthermore, it makes a sincerely compelling argument for the United States to reward the dramatic arts as regally as our English cousins do. This documentary is an absolute treat.