Movie Review: “Tea with the Dames”

Roger Ebert said (or, perhaps, wrote), “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” Knowing that, please also know that I lament the fact that “Tea with the Dames” barely cracks 80 minutes.

Directed by Roger Michell, the film is a documentary looking at four legendary actresses, all of whom have been friends for decades.  Specifically, the four are Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, and Dame Joan Plowright.

Not an exhaustive look at the Dames, their lives, and careers, “Tea with the Dames” is, however, an intimate one.  Shot at a cottage seemingly owned by Plowright, the documentary has the actresses sat down in various combinations and allows them to talk, occasionally prompted by an off screen voice (one assumes it is Michell’s).

Consequently, we in the audience are flies on the wall during discussions like one where the four women talk about performing the title role in, or turning down, “Antony and Cleopatra.”  They remember the times they have had at the cottage with Plowright’s husband and how they were scared to work with him on stage (the gentleman in question is Sir Laurence Olivier).

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the women are more cautious about opening up on certain occasions than others, and the absolute best bits are the portions where one of the Dames is caught off guard by a question or a remembrance.  There are moments in the film when they might end up singing a tune, or doing part of a speech, or tearing up, but while there is an honesty through all of it, it is a heightened one when the women are caught unawares.

More than once, the camera stays on the Dames between or before takes, and that is something to which they become wise along the way.  Even so, the effect of these added glimpses, of watching them prepare or have their makeup done, is to further wipe away the finished exterior and give us a good look inside.

Kudos must also go to the team working with Michell behind the scenes.  The audience is repeatedly treated to old photographs or footage that goes with whatever the Dames are discussing.  It cannot have been easy to find it all, and it adds much to the movie.

Despite all the good, as indicated, there are certainly occasions when it feels as though the women have their defenses up and are preventing the reveal of something deep inside.  There are also moments that leave the audience desperately wanting the women to expand upon whatever story they are telling or to hear someone else’s opinion on it.  It all proceeds too rapidly.  One almost wishes the camera had simply been plopped down in the room, turned on, and the film was the uncut result of that time.

Outside of “Tea with the Dames” being extended to something far more in depth, or getting the chance to sit down with the Dames and a cuppa myself, what I was really left wanting was a companion piece.   I would love a film that delves into the making of this movie, offering up a behind the scenes look at how it was put together and what was left on the cutting room floor.

Those who watch the film will certainly have their own favorite discussions (for me, it is the talk of playing Cleopatra), but there is a little bit of something for everyone.  It is a truly beautiful look at these real individuals who whom we have all seen on stage and/or screen for so long. Don’t miss it.

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photo credit: IFC Films

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