Spilling the Tea: For Dames Maggie, Judi, Eileen and Joan, No Subject Is Off Limits

tea with the dames

Mark Johnson/IFC FIlms

Here in the States, the populace worships the Kardashians. In the U.K., there’s nothing like a Dame. In a sane world, there’s no contest. So do have tea with the Dames: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has had the good sense to round up this quartet of acting royalty and listen to each of them dish about the highs and lows of their careers, theirs fears, their tears, and their love lives. From acting to aging, no subject is off limits.

How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. The setting is the garden of a rural cottage that Plowright built with her late husband, Lord Laurence Olivier, the legendary actor.

Mags, as her friends call Dame Maggie, allows that working with the demanding Olivier — they were both Oscar nominated for 1965’s Othello — was “tricky.” Playing Shakespeare is discussed. Jude, as the diminutive Dame Judi is tagged, recalls being openly mocked as a “menopausal dwarf” when she took on the role of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, opposite Anthony Hopkins, in the Bard’s Antony and Cleopatra. To the sound of laughter, Dame Joan — who costarred with her husband in The Entertainer, on stage and screen — notes slyly that “none of us was ever in the front ranks of world beauties.”

Perhaps so, but the glorious clips from films and stage productions that Michell generously sprinkles through Tea With the Dames shows each actress radiating talent, youth, smarts and sexual vitality. Plowright, the eldest of the group (they’re all in their eighties now) complains of the failing eyesight that halted her career. Mags sneers at her success in Downton Abbey, claiming never to have watched the PBS series that won her three Emmys. She adds, teasingly, that Jude gets all the plum parts, including playing M in eight James Bond films. A bizarre claim since Smith figures prominently in the entire series of Harry Potter films.

Atkins, who co-created the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and currently stars as Queen Mary on The Crown, is the first to admit to a crippling stage fright. “On my way to the theater I always think, ‘Would you like to be run over now, or in a massive car accident?’ And I only just about come out on the side of ‘No.’” Nodding in agreement, the four Dames talk about the perils of acting with their husbands, now divorced or dead. Dame Joan uses the word “privilege” to describe acting and living with Olivier, adding that it was also “a nightmare.” Director Roger Michell wisely just turns on his cameras and lets the ladies rip. No point in giving away any more of what gets said in that garden and in that cottage. Just know that it’s delicious — sweet, tart, surprisingly moving and funny as hell. Tea with the Dames is an invitation to a conversational feast with four acting paragons who are not above a little profanity and confessions that make them human. Don’t miss the chance to bask in the pleasure of their company.

 

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