Film & Television

‘Tea with the Dames,’ An Intimate Portrait of Four Old Friends

The premise of Roger Mitchell’s latest film sounds like a bit of a snore. Four octogenarians get together at a quiet country estate, as they’ve done for years. They have tea in the garden, then go into the house when it starts raining. The end.

In Tea with the Dames, there’s very little action. But there’s plenty of drama.

The tea drinkers (they do switch to champagne eventually) are four of England’s undisputed national treasures: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Joan Plowright. All are Dames of the British Empire for their contributions to the dramatic arts. And, as the delightful documentary demonstrates, all are “dames” in the more colloquial sense. These are tough broads who have lived extraordinary lives, on and off the stage.

The eponymous tea takes place at the country house Plowright shared with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier. It’s situated halfway between the seaside pleasures of Brighton and the town of Chichester, where Olivier ran the National Theatre’s summer festivals. Of the four actresses, Plowright, who can also claim the titles Lady and Baroness, is the only one who has retired.

Plowright began her career in 1948 after training at the Old Vic Theatre School. Her mother encouraged her: “You’re no oil painting, my girl, but you have the spark.” By 1957, having amassed impressive stage credits, she was cast as Olivier’s daughter in The Entertainer. After they married (her second marriage, his third), she worked with him at the National Theatre. In her six-decade career, she has earned two Golden Globes and a Tony Award, and been nominated for an Academy Award and two British Academy of Film and Television awards (BAFTAs). American audiences probably know her best for her later films, such as Enchanted April, Tea with Mussolini, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.

Atkins’s name may be less familiar on this side of the pond, but her face is instantly recognizable. She played Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s grandmother, in the popular Netflix series The Crown, as well as the cook (and Helen Mirren’s sister) in 2001’s Gosford Park. Born to a working-class family, she studied dance as a child and discovered acting at age ten. Her career has included classical theater, as well as film and television, and she’s the recipient of a BAFTA, an Emmy, and three Olivier Awards.

Dench has earned her share of awards as well, including an Oscar, a Tony, ten BAFTAs, and seven Oliviers. Renowned for her stage work with both the National and the Royal Shakespeare companies, she’s averaged three films a year since her 80th birthday in 2014. Some of her most popular roles include “M” in seven James Bond films, Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, Evelyn in the Exotic Marigold Hotel  movies, and Queen Victoria in both Mrs. Brown and Victoria & Abdul.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.