You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Tea With the Dames’

Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright look back on their careers in a richly enjoyable gabfest that may as well be titled 'Dames Bond.'

Roger Michell
Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith
Release Date:
Sep 21, 2018

1 hour 23 minutes

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.

Film Review: 'Tea With the Dames'

Reviewed online, London, Sept. 18, 2018. Running time: 83 MIN. (Original title: "Nothing Like a Dame")

Production: (Documentary — U.K.) An IFC Films (in U.S.)/Picturehouse Entertainment (in U.K.) release of a Field Day Prods., BBC Arena production for Kew Media. (International sales: Kew Media Group, Toronto.) Producers: Sally Angel, Karen Steyn. Executive producers: Anthony Wall, Jamie Carmichael, John Schmidt, Sally Angel, Debbie Manners.

Crew: Director: Roger Michell. Camera (color): Eben Bolter. Editor: Joanna Crickmay.

With: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith

More Film

  • Brett Leonard Boards 'Elijah'

    Film News Roundup: 'Lawnmower Man' Director Brett Leonard Boards 'Elijah'

    In today’s film news roundup, “Elijah” gets a director, a French fry documentary starts shooting and “Uglydolls” moves its release date forward. PROJECT LAUNCH More Reviews Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Film Review: 'Dead Women Walking' Brett Leonard, best known for directing ”The Lawnmower Man” and “Virtuosity,” will direct the supernatural feature film “Elijah,” [...]


    SAG-AFTRA Commercial Negotiations Set for February

    With no fanfare, SAG-AFTRA and the ad industry have set a mid-February start for negotiations for a successor deal to the union’s master contract, Variety has learned. The current three-year deal — which covers about $1 billion in annual earnings — expires on March 31. SAG-AFTRA and the Joint Policy Committee of the ad industry [...]


    Oscar Nominee Sondra Locke Dies at 74

    Actress and director Sondra Locke, who received a supporting actress Oscar nomination in her first movie role for “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” died Nov. 3 at 74. The Los Angeles County Public Health Department confirmed her death. She died due to breast and bone cancer, according to Radar Online, which reported that she [...]

  • Clint Eastwood and Alison Eastwood'The Mule'

    Clint Eastwood: Why Alison Eastwood Came Out of Acting Retirement for Her Dad

    Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison Eastwood was done with acting after appearing in 2014’s “Finding Harmony.” Or so she thought. More Reviews Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Film Review: 'Dead Women Walking' It was a Friday night and she and her husband were heading to dinner when her father’s producer Sam Moore called. “He [says], [...]

  • 'Dead Women Walking' Review: Uncompromising, Powerful

    Film Review: 'Dead Women Walking'

    The sober and gripping “Dead Women Walking” focuses on the final days of a series of female inmates facing the death sentence. Divided into nine chapters, each inching its way inexorably closer to the moment of execution, the drama turns the fragmentation of its approach to a powerful advantage. Not only do the individual stories [...]

  • Sam Mendes

    Sam Mendes' World War I Drama '1917' Set for Awards-Season Launch on Christmas 2019

    Universal Pictures has given an awards-season release date of Dec. 25, 2019, to Sam Mendes’ World War I drama “1971.” Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners is producing “1917” through its DreamWorks Pictures brand. “1917” will open in limited release on Christmas Day then go wide two weeks later on Jan. 10, 2020. More Reviews Broadway Review: [...]

  • Ventana Sur Queer Latin Film Panel

    Ventana Sur: Panel Talks Merits, Setbacks in Latin Queer Cinema

    BUENOS AIRES — Four venerable professionals from the cinema world joined on Monday evening for Queer Cinema In Latin America, a frank discussion on Latin America’s role within the queer filmscape for Ventana Sur’s Industry conference series held at the UCA campus in Buenos Aires. Touching on advancements in character arc and notable achievements in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content