Movie Review: ‘TEA WITH THE DAMES’ is an inviting, if not brief conversation

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

TEA WITH THE DAMES

Not Rated, 84 minutes
Directed by: Roger Michell
Starring: Eileen AtkinsJudi DenchJoan Plowright, Maggie Smith

While no one actually drinks any tea in director Roger Michell’s TEA WITH THE DAMES (known across the pond as NOTHING LIKE A DAME), the women profiled are certainly metaphorically spilling the tea on their co-stars, husbands, each other and the entertainment industry at large. It only serves to make this British-produced documentary that much more of a smashing, voyeuristic romp.

Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie Smith have been friends for decades, frequently vacationing in the English countryside to catch up. For the first time, cameras have been allowed to document what their feisty conversations are like – and it’s everything that fans would expect. Though it seems like these four legendary actresses hold back a bit on how they naturally act without cameras and a crew around, we see how their jovial, sweet friendship has stood the test of time. They finish each other’s sentences and cut each other off as best friends often do. And while that’s an endearing trait to showcase, sometimes their stories are cut short when we want to hear more. Michell’s desire to capture their natural interactions is admirable, but occasionally they might have gotten to a deeper place with more prodding.

Dame Maggie Smith in TEA WITH THE DAMES. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.

Nevertheless, fans of their stage work will certainly revel in the anecdotes the icons dish out. Perhaps the best aside is when Dench – nicknamed “Jude” by her pals – shares that she challenged producers who wanted her to star in the stage play Cleopatra, calling herself “a pre-menopausal dwarf.” They cast her anyway. Another uproarious story involves Smith recounting the hilarity of acclaimed actor Sir Laurence Olivier desperately hollering at his kids, “Where are the keys to daddy’s num nums?” They don’t go into their film work nearly as much as their years spent on stage, but when they do, both Smith and Dench deliver fun nuggets about how they came to be cast in two blockbusting franchises (Smith in the HARRY POTTER series and Dench in the James Bond series).

Casually ribbing one another and sarcastically mocking the audacity of the documentarian’s requests (“taking the piss” as the Brits would say) are reflexive tools of the trade that have evidently gotten these icons through many stuffy, intense situations. Their ferocious spirits have been tested by many stubborn, narcissistic men. But as told through their candid tales, they’ve come out on top. “Fear is the petrol,” Dench states.

Despite being back-loaded with poignant revelations about age, legacy and career longevity, Michell’s film delights overall with its sunshine disposition. We’re here for the hangout factor alone.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5

TEA WITH THE DAMES opens in limited release on September 21.

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