It’s alright, you can still swear.
Friends for over fifty years, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith join together for Nothing Like a Dame [Tea with the Dames] as they often have. This time, however, comes at the behest of director Roger Michell. And while it’s structured to appear like any other get-together this quartet has enjoyed at Plowright’s estate, there’s no effort to hide the production’s artifice under false pretenses of fly-on-the-wall intent. We see clapboards, listen to Smith good-naturedly call out a photographer off-camera, and hear them give Michell a hard time for making them endure make-up artists, invasive questions, and prop couches that feel anything but natural. This is part of the charm, though—fodder for candor, curse words, and wit. The scenario is planned, the reactions loose.
The “Dame” aspect provides a tidy little bow to place atop their heads as a common element towards their greatness in the craft of drama, but it’s a small part of who they are as individuals and a cohesive unit onscreen. While some anecdotal chatter is ultimately shared about their respective experiences receiving the honor around mid-way through the film, the majority of their conversation revolves around their careers. We learn about how they started (with some great archival footage of performances mentioned and photos spanning the decades), what it was like working with their actor husbands, and great personal tales of wasp stings, head massages, big budget sets, playing Cleopatra, and American agents sowing seeds of off-the-cuff competition. There’s obviously a lot of love shared between them.
Besides the question about first setting foot inside Plowright’s (and late husband Laurence Olivier‘s) home, however, the topic rarely concerns their togetherness. Their lives ran parallel and that’s great as far as talking about receiving notes from Olivier, their modesty about their beauty, and their never-evaporating fear when it comes time to perform, but I was hoping for more about their friendship itself. What do they discuss at these frequent reunions? Did they ever seek projects where they could work together? Would they go on holiday as a group, watch as their children became friends, or stand-up at each other’s weddings? Sometimes they tell stories they remember being told when the teller doesn’t recall herself, but that’s not enough to prove the sisterhood posited by the synopsis.
What we get is more roundtable “this is your life” discussion than behind the curtain look-see at one the of the industry’s most talented group of contemporaries who cherish their company as equals rather than enemies (although one laugh from Smith about Dench’s current work habits is a wonderful jab as far as Hollywood favoritism goes). Michell’s questions go from one woman to the next with periodic interjections from the others about what they’ve heard—talking head interviews rather than filmed conversation with too many “What was your personal experience?” and not enough broad openings for them to run with together. The most genuine moment occurs when a laptop playing silent home movie footage of a young Dench arrives to spark memory. It’s the sole bit of spontaneity.
That’s not to say the whole isn’t still extremely entertaining with their wealth of humor and priceless anecdotes. It simply never quite delivers what it appears to want to sell. Their lives are vibrant and expansive enough to earn their own feature-length biographical documentaries, so trying to deliver one 80-minute glimpse of all four simultaneously proves a fool’s errand. Here’s a built-in conceit that wouldn’t necessarily be included in their individual retrospectives and yet it’s squandered. I highly doubt that Michell underestimated how deep these gatherings got. They women aren’t simply “work friends” who get together to talk shop all day rather than cultivating personal connections beyond an industry setting. Perhaps the allowance of cameras into this part of their lives came at the price of guardedly staying superficial.
This is my guess since some do clam up about certain topics they aren’t comfortable pursuing (see Smith and Cleopatra). I would believe it if there were more instances like this that Michell cut around before changing tactics and focusing on generic issues not to rock the boat. So the fourth wall-breaking moments of these women commenting on the process of making this film serve to infuse personality the otherwise more regimented questions couldn’t procure instead. That’s why I wish Tea with the Dames had been more concert documentary than interview special. Give these four an outline of possible conversation starters and let them go at their own pace while capturing everything to sift through later. This environment should drive the substance rather than merely supply its backdrop.
courtesy of IFC Films