Tea With the Dames (Nothing Like a Dame)


What could be more English than old friends having tea on the lawn on an overcast day.

(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
NEXT:
Mandy

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Pick of the Litter – September 2018


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

The Nun

(New Line) Taissa Farmiga, Demián Bichir, Bonnie Aarons, Jonny Coyne. The second spin-off film from the Conjuring film universe focuses on a demonic nun who has appeared in the visions of Lorraine Warren – played by Vera Farmiga, the older sister of Taissa. In this period piece, a young novitiate about to take her final vows and a priest with a troubled past are sent to a Romanian convent to investigate the suicide of a nun there. They find a terrifying apparition who heralds a desperate battle between the living and the damned with the fate of their souls on the line. Could be another winner for the series.  September 7

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Hal

(Oscilloscope) Hal Ashby, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges. Hal Ashby directed some of the most seminal films of the 70s including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Being There, Coming Home, Shampoo and Bound for Glory. Despite a resume of that caliber he remains largely unsung today, his later career being marked by drug use and a reputation for being difficult to work with. Still, many contemporary directors are influenced by his passion and his eye for a great story. September 7

Life in the Doghouse

(FilmRise) Ron Davis. Danny and Ron’s Dog Rescue is a unique operation. They are contacted regularly by animal shelters to take dogs that are on the euthanasia list and bring the animals into their home. Since beginning their business, they’ve rescued over 10,000 dogs, many of them who are basically unadoptable. Their pledge is that these animals will never see the inside of a shelter again, and if nobody adopts them, they’ll live their lives out with Danny and Ron. September 12

The Children’s Act

(A24) Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Finn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin. A judge whose marriage is crumbling is assigned a particularly difficult case in which a young teen with leukemia refuses blood transfusions that he needs to survive because of his faith. The judge must determine whether the teen is being unduly influenced by his parents who are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses or that the boy has arrived at his stand on his own. The two will find inspiration in one another as time ticks down on the seriously ill young man. September 14

Lizzie

(Roadside Attractions/Saban) Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw. The story of Lizzie Borden is a familiar one; in 1892, her mother and father were brutally murdered with an axe. Lizzie was accused of the heinous crime but was never convicted. This is a reimagining of the notorious case which remains unsolved more than 125 years later. September 14

Love, Gilda

(Magnolia/CNN) Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader. She was one of the most beloved comedians of her time. She was also the first person selected for the original Saturday Night Live cast. In this intimate documentary, we hear her thoughts and her life in her own words through tape recordings made during her illness and in journal entries throughout her life. September 21

 Tea With the Dames

(Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Four of the greatest actresses of the 21st century (and the 20th) get together for a spot of tea and a bit of idle gossip. The results are hilarious, heartwarming and vivacious. September 21

The Old Man and the Gun

(Fox Searchlight) Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover. This is the story of Forrest Tucker, an enigmatic bank robber who at 70 years old  escapes from San Quentin and embarks on a series of daring heists that frustrate law enforcement authorities and captivate the public. Redford has stated that this will be his final acting role. September 28

Bad Reputation

(Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend. Joan Jett has gone from an upstart who dared to play rock and roll as a woman to an icon who has inspired generations of female rockers. This is her story from her time in the Runaways to her battles with the powers that be to her acceptance as one of the most influential figures in the annals of rock and roll. September 28

Monsters and Men

(Neon) Anthony Ramos, John David Washington, Rob Morgan, Chanté Adams. A young man with a future films an unjustified police shooting of an unarmed man in front of a Brooklyn bodega. He is faced with the choice of posting the video and potentially jeopardizing everything he has worked so hard to achieve, or keep it hidden and in doing so becoming complicit in the cover-up. September 28