There are some films that deliver with such literal-minded generosity on the promise of their titles that all you can do in response is applaud, and in that respect — if no other — “Tea With the Dames” is the new “Snakes on a Plane.” Roger Michell’s documentary offers dames (a thespian quartet of them, comprising Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright) and tea and pretty much nothing else. Happily, that turns out to be enough for a wholly delightful talkathon, shot on location in the rambling country pile that Plowright once shared with Laurence Olivier. For the tea in question is not so much the beverage as a warm, steady stream of gossip, spilled lavishly, as four of the pre-eminent British actors of their generation reflect mirthfully on their careers, their lives and lovers, their ongoing insecurities and some 60 years of friendship between them.
Devoid of technical fuss or ambition, “Tea With the Dames” is hardly vital cinema. In the U.K., where it was released under the more obvious title “Nothing Like a Dame,” Michell’s film hopped over to primetime BBC TV mere weeks after a successful arthouse run, and its natural home may arguably be in small-screen arts programming. But it’s a project that knows exactly what its assets are and how to use them: Once the dames are in full, perfectly enunciated flow, it could be shot on a low-grade cellphone for all the difference it makes to our enjoyment. As the conversation romps jovially across subjects ranging from stage fright to late-blooming screen stardom, and from early-career body-image concerns to the wearily accumulating indignities of old age, their combined good humor and catty irony rarely flags.
Yet there’s a bittersweet undertow to their banter, as each memory comes with the shivering threat of evanescence. (They’re thankfully backed up, in some cases, by well-chosen archive nuggets, none more delicious than a snippet of Dench’s original turn as Sally Bowles in the 1968 West End staging of “Cabaret.”) Now all widowed and well into their eighties, Dench, Smith, Atkins and Plowright are all too aware that their experiences might vanish from the public consciousness — that is, if they don’t forget them first. When Dench recounts first meeting Smith in rehearsals for an obscure play at the Edinburgh festival in 1958, Smith professes no memory of the encounter: “It’s gone,” she mutters, and in that moment, it’s hard to tell if her bone-dry sense of humor is at work or not.
Atkins, for her part, is resigned to a certain inevitable diminishing of their acting legacies, as perceptions and preferences in performance style shift with the times: She drolly notes that what she once intended as a boldly naturalistic approach to classical drama now plays as quaint to her professional heirs. (What goes around comes around, after all: The four ruefully recall regarding Dame Edith Evans with a fair degree of eye-rolling in their younger days.) Plowright, the one retired member of the group due to debilitating blindness, is sanguine about her lot: Her agent, she says, keeps promising to find her “a nice little cameo that Judi Dench hasn’t got her paws on.”
That last quip is typical of the lightly vinegary tone that predominates, as the old friends affectionately tease each other and mock themselves throughout — proving themselves a lot sharper, more acerbic and expletive-inclined than the cozy heritage projects in which they routinely get cast. “Tea With the Dames” would be worth the price of admission if only to witness Smith’s barely-veiled disdain for some of her more popular credits: Admitting that she’s never seen an episode of “Downton Abbey,” she mordantly notes, “I shall have to hasten or I’ll never see the wretched thing.”
One could effectively fill a review with the ladies’ best one-liners — it’s not as if there’s much to say about the strictly serviceable filmmaking — but they’re far better discovered in context. A takeaway from “Tea With the Dames” is that conversation is itself a kind of performance art, and it follows that these women do it better than most. The film begins with a too-cute chyron, explaining that the four routinely meet at this house to catch up, and cameras have only now been granted access to this tradition; the spontaneous rhythm of their chatter, however, renders that premise entirely credible. Acting as an invisible but frequently audible interviewer, Michell prompts and steers them with a light touch, covering a lot of ground in a loosey-goosey 83 minutes.
It’s perhaps a shame that the film was shot before the sudden advent of the #MeToo era, though stabs of political anger and conviction do poke through the merriment. The history of blackface and cultural appropriation in classical theater is addressed in wry but self-effacing fashion; the issue of class representation in the British arts, currently a hot topic in the U.K. film industry in particular, comes in for welcome scrutiny. (Plowright recalls a director observing in her youth that she “can’t play queens”; a damehood presumably softened that blow.) Finally, abusive or demeaning male directors are tacitly admonished by the continued fact of the dames’ exalted existence. “I’m still hanging in for that,” says Smith, after Michell observes that she has been discovered and rediscovered over the course of her career. May this bright afternoon breeze of a doc renew and enrich our onscreen acquaintance with all four.