TEA WITH THE DAMES
Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith have let the cameras in on a friendship that goes back more than half a century. The four acting greats discuss their careers and reminisce about their humble beginnings in the theatre.
Review by Louise Keller:
It's not just what she says, but the way she says it, that makes Judi Dench's personal advice to her younger self so moving. Be less susceptible to falling in love, she says. This is one of the many wonderful moments in this charming fly-on-the-wall documentary that brings together four luminaries of English theatre and film: Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins. Notting Hill director Roger Michell has crafted a raw, revealing, non-scripted film filled with natural pauses and awkward silences as these extraordinary women talk about their lives, relationships and experiences both on and off stage. There's a comfortable vibe between them as they laugh, cringe and recall professional and personal moments. Everything feels real and we sense that. This is cinematic magic for the discerning.
First meetings, stage fright, remembering lines, Shakespeare, naturalistic interpretations and getting old are some of the topics of conversation. How scary is a film set? (Scary every day.) Working with husbands? (Challenging.) Reviews? (Don't read them.) Teeth for talking and teeth for eating; how to handle the role of Cleopatra; feeling like a menopausal dwarf; preparing for death; the weight of hats; being a dame.... There are in-jokes, recollections of good times and bad, revelations about all kinds of things and best of all, there is a great sense of place and Britishness. An authenticity about the interactions. They are all the same age - give or take. Octogenarians. Despite the title, they do not drink tea. Water is the beverage on offer and in the later stages a bottle of Champagne is produced.
Smith is perhaps the most reluctant participant: her clash with Plowright's husband Laurence Olivier is one of the topics about which she is clearly uncomfortable (Olivier was renowned for being difficult). Her quick wit however, is constantly on display. There's a lovely dynamic between Smith and Dench; both have great recall. Fear is petrol, says Dench, explaining that sometimes fear is a motivation that brings its own rewards.
Fabulous archive footage exposes each of the women at different stages of their careers. The fact that they are all recognisable at any age is reassuring. There are scenes from many of their films: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Tea with Mussolini, Harry Potter, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Skyfall to name a few.
The film ends with Dench voicing the magician Prospero's words from Shakespeare's The Tempest: 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on....' It is a fitting conclusion for this hypnotising glimpse into the worlds of four icons whose creativity and imprint is indelible.
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TEA WITH THE DAMES (G)
CAST: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins
PRODUCER: Sally Angel, Karen Steyn
DIRECTOR: Roger Michell
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Eben Bolter
EDITOR: Not credited
MUSIC: Anne Miller
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Not credited
RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 7, 2018