Film Review: ‘Tea With the Dames’: Four UK Actresses of the Theater

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
September 24, 2018 Updated: September 28, 2018

| Documentary | 21 September 2018 (USA)

The American equivalent of “Tea With the Dames” would be if Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen had tea together. Oh, wait, that already happened; it was a bad movie called “Book Club.”

No, the only comparison that can be made between that group of American actresses and the four British theater dames (Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright) would be that they’re all in their advancing years.

Probably the only American equivalent to these grand British thesps would be Meryl Streep. She’s the only one carrying the same gravitas, probably due to a combination of venerability due to advancing years, Yale Drama School pedigree, and of course her sheer tonnage of Oscars. And no American actress can touch Streep’s British accent: She played Margaret Thatcher, after all.

Theater acting is a much different animal than on-camera acting. Film requires being natural, which is insanely difficult if you try putting your focus on it. However, a platoon of, say, Navy SEALs can be brought in and filmed doing SEAL things much more believably than trained actors doing SEAL things (which was exactly the case in “Act of Valor”)—if the director knows how to get the SEALs to relax and just “do the doings.”

Theater, on the other hand, takes massive amounts of technique. That’s why Juilliard is a music conservatory and an acting conservatory. The big Shakespearean roles are all athletic; it takes a highly trained set of lungs to whisper during the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” and be perfectly audible to the back row of a big theater, while un-miked.

While the dames don’t get terribly deep into the nuts and bolts of acting craft, “Tea With the Dames” is a wonderful trip down memory lane with stellar artists.

Four Women, Four Knighthoods

I still don’t understand how one gets knighted to become a dame (I thought only knights got knighted), but whatever. These four royals of the theater have been friends for decades and hang out together a lot. Somebody thought it would make a good documentary to film them hanging out. They were right.

Four Top UK actresses talking
(L–R) Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright, Dame Eileen Atkins, and Dame Judi Dench in “Tea With the Dames.” (IFC Films)

It must be said, though, that the more knowledgeable one is of this sixth of the seven great arts—1) architecture, 2) sculpture, 3) painting, 4) music, 5) poetry, 6) theater, and 7) dance—the more you’ll get out of this film. Even more so if you’re a Laurence Olivier aficionado. Olivier is widely considered the greatest stage actor who ever lived. Plowright was married to him, and the other three often worked with him.

For example, Olivier towered so ridiculously head and shoulders above everyone else (in addition to running London’s National Theatre) that he functioned as an acting coach to all his colleagues, dispensing acting wisdom and lessons constantly.

In “Tea,” Maggie Smith recounts playing Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello (Shakespeare). The focus is on the anecdote, when he told her one day that she needed to work on her vowels. “How now, brown cow?” she immediately intoned. “Much better!” Olivier said.

The actual joke that’s not mentioned in the movie (but was in a biography) was that the vowel lesson happened in the dressing room—while Olivier was putting on his dark-brown Othello makeup—and Smith said she saw the brown cow joke finally dawn on him in the middle of one of Othello’s grand speeches onstage, and how he nearly lost it. (Olivier, in his early years, was known for needing to run offstage due to uncontrollable giggling.)

But enough about Olivier; this is the dames’ hour. As mentioned, they let the cameras in on a weekend visit to Plowright’s home. The ladies chat, tell jokes, wax irreverent, swear, laugh, talk a bit of shop, and stroll down memory lane, while having the quintessential British tea.

Each actress’s journey includes rare footage: from career beginnings, to film roles, to finally curtsying before Prince Charles. It’s all rather magical. Magical in the sense that a world-class actor in the zone gives off insane amounts of energy, and magic happens, and you get to witness a bit of each actress’s other-worldliness. Not to mention youthful beauty. Going from seeing the wizened 80s to the luminescent 20s and back is often startling and stirs up musings on aging and the nature of human existence.

I’m sorry, but this brings to mind another anecdote, speaking of energy. One night, according to a compilation of interviews, word quickly got around among the actors that Olivier was burning with an incredibly intense heat—so much so, that anyone who’d had a scene with him came offstage with the side of his or her face that had been closest to him bright red, as though they’d stood too close to a smelting furnace. OK, enough about Larry.

Fun for Actors

There’s a good discussion on naturalism in Shakespeare, led by Atkins, about how each new generation thinks they’ve got the new, improved take on how to do Shakespeare realistically and naturalistically. Plowright says she doesn’t care for all the hemming and hawing, ums, and ahems—it is poetry, after all. They all agree, but Maggie Smith also points out that the generations prior to John Gielgud and Olivier would sound a bit too bombastic and empty today.

While one wishes there were more acting lessons of this nature, what’s special about the film are the relationships: things like, in spite of the fact that they’re all dear friends, they’re also competing professionals. At one point they all gang up on Judi Dench, ribbing her for getting all the good roles and leaving them and their respective agents to pick over the table scraps. 

Dame Judi Dench sits on a couch
Dame Judi Dench in “Tea With the Dames” (IFC Films) 

What a delicious thing that must be, to know the same people for 60 years, to share the same passion and premier talent for a profession, to know the same theaters, directors, playwrights, actors, award ceremonies, and above all, to relish the wicked senses of humor only world-class comediennes have. Well, there are no de facto comediennes among these women. They’re all drama queens in the best sense of the word. Nevertheless, they all spent a lot of time around Olivier, who, according  to another biography, wanted his tombstone to read, simply, “He was funny.” That’s the last mention of Larry, I promise.

This is not really a film about friendship; it’s a rare sisterhood, and it’s a privilege to be allowed to sit in on it and share their tea.

‘Tea With The Dames’
Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins
Rated: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 21
Rated 4 stars out of 5