(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell
Four mature English ladies get together for tea and gossip – four ladies who happen to be some of the most beloved and respected actresses in the history of the British theater. Two of them = Dench and Smith – are fairly well-known in the States due largely to their movie work which the ladies in question are almost dismissive of. Clearly, the theater is the first love for all these ladies, three of them who were born in 1934 whereas Plowright, the eldest of the quartet was born in 1930.
Apparently they gather annually at the country cottage of Plowright which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. There, the four gather at the kitchen table and in the living room with tea and champagne to gossip and take a stroll down memory lane, augmented by a fair amount of archival footage and stills of the girls in their youth.
Michell, a veteran narrative feature director with such films as Notting Hill and Venus to his credit, is often heard directing questions at the ladies although he is not seen onscreen. That isn’t to say that we don’t have meta moments here; often the crew is seen setting up shots, while one taking still pictures off-camera clearly distracts Smith who chuckles “We would never actually sit like this, you know.” In fact, it is Smith who comes off as the most down-to-earth and delightfully droll as she discusses an occasion when she was acting onstage with Olivier and he actually delivered a real slap to her face. Not to be put off, she delivers the best line of the show “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”
While the movie doesn’t have many bon mots quite as clear as that one, it does have plenty of laugh out loud moments as the girls discuss their careers, their own foibles (Dench comes under much jovial fire as the others complain that they can’t get movie roles because Dench has nabbed them all) and quite a bit of gossip. Talking about her time in the Harry Potter films, Smith says that she and the late Alan Rickman had a great deal of difficulty coming up with original facial expressions for the innumerable reaction shots both of these decorated actors were forced to give at the antics of the children, which Smith is quick to point out “as was proper.”
Although the ladies rib the director for artificially setting up what is supposed to come off as an informal and natural conversation, in fact at the end of the day it feels exactly like that – as if we as viewers were sitting at the kitchen table with these extraordinary ladies and getting the benefit of their recollections, their humor and their honesty. As old friends are, the four are completely comfortable with one another.
Although all the actresses here are in their 80s, mortality isn’t discussed much other than Dench dismissing an inquiry from Miriam Margolyes about whether she had her funeral arrangements made with a curt but affectionate “I’m not going to die.” Plowright, who is retired now, has severe vision issues and is nearly blind but is still as regal as she ever was. In fact, the vitality of these ladies in their sunset years is impressive in itself; I hope that I’m as vital in my 80s as these marvelous ladies are now.
The thing about a movie like this is that it rises and falls on how the conversation goes. Not to worry on that account; clearly most viewers who see this will be wishing for more when the credits unspool. The thing is though, not everyone is going to be impressed with a film of this nature and that’s okay. It will appeal to cinemaphiles, theater lovers and particularly those of a certain age. It’s impossible not to like these ladies after spending a too-short hour and a half with them however. I’d be absolutely over the moon to share a cuppa with any of these magnificent women. To be in on a conversation between all four is something like manna from heaven.
REASONS TO GO: The conversation is fascinating throughout. This is very much like sitting around the kitchen with a bunch of old friends.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the wealth of archival footage feels a bit busy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the film title, none of the four actresses are ever seen in the film actually drinking their tea.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Optimum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10