Film & Television

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

The fourth Dame, Smith, has the distinction of having starred in one of the most successful television series, Downton Abbey, and one of the most successful movie franchises, Harry Potter, although she is dismissive about both (more on that later). Smith began her career at the Oxford Playhouse (her father was a teacher at the university), and has appeared in more than sixty films and TV shows. No stranger to awards either, she holds two Oscars, five BAFTAs, a Tony, and four Emmys.

The truly remarkable careers of the four Dames are neatly woven into Mitchell’s film. But what makes it sheer delight is their oh-so-candid conversation.

Discussing naturalism, for example, Plowright complains, “It’s difficult to hear Shakespeare done naturally today, when actors pause anywhere they like, and ‘uh, uh, uh.'” She discounts “bringing it down to your size, rather than reaching up.” Dench argues that you can respect the poetry and sound natural. “It’s a balancing act.”

One Shakespearean heroine in particular is discussed at length. Atkins turned down Cleopatra several times. “I didn’t think I was good looking enough,” she explains, later admitting, “I didn’t have the courage.” “Neither did I,” Smith concurs, wryly adding “That’s why I did it in Canada.” Much is made of Dench’s reaction when offered the iconic role, “Do you really want a menopausal dwarf to play this part?”

All of the Dames express insecurities about their looks. As Plowright puts it, “We weren’t in the first rank of world beauties.”

When the conversation hits lulls, Mitchell introduces new topics. At one point, he asks what it was like to be made a Dame. The answers are personal and somewhat amusing. Atkins’s letter was lost in the post. Smith was thrilled that her father was still alive. Plowright had to grapple with juggling multiple titles. And, Dench, recognized with the honor first, insists, “It doesn’t make any difference. You can still swear.”

To prove her point, perhaps, she is quick to snap, “Fuck off, Roger,” when the director asks about getting old. More seriously, she complains about young people’s condescension. When she was stung by a hornet on set, the “seventeen-year-old” paramedic practically spoke to her in baby talk. “What’s our name? Have we got a career?”

As the ninety-minute film moves briskly along, good-natured rivalries surface. (Dench, apparently, gets all the good roles nowadays.) The women gossip, reminisce, and exchange backstage anecdotes. They also remark on losing their hearing, or, in the case of Plowright and to some extent Dench, their eyesight. It’s clear that they are genuinely good friends as well as long-time professional colleagues.

Toward the end of the film, they’re asked what advice they would give to their younger selves. Plowright’s answer is the most philosophical: “Get in touch and learn about the brain and its influence on the body.” Atkins scolds herself, “Don’t be so very bad-tempered.” Dench advises, “Try not to be so susceptible to falling in love.” And, Smith provides the most succinct motto: “When in doubt, don’t.” Or, in Latin, “Cum Dubito Desisto.”

Smith, like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is the group’s best at one-liners. When asked how many episodes she shot of Downton, she shrugs, “I haven’t seen it yet.”

As the day of shooting goes by, the women run out of topics and become a bit cranky with the crew.

“I’m sorry we’re so very tired,” Smith explains, adding wickedly, “They’ve told you how old we are?”

A montage of images from each woman’s career wraps up the film lovingly. Dench, in voiceover, reads Puck’s final monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

The movie ends, as it begins, with the Dames doing vocal warmup exercises. Consummate professionals until the end.

If you’re fortunate, you can find Tea With The Dames at a limited number of art houses. It’s also available to rent on Amazon Prime.

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