‘Tea With the Dames’ a refreshing cinematic break
“Tea With the Dames,” playing this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a real tonic. If you have any love for the art of acting, this filmed conversation among four eminent women veterans of Britain’s film and stage scene will banish the blues.
The quartet are Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright. The titular “dames” is not used loosely — all four have had the honorific officially bestowed on them.
The director, Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”), obviously realized what he had on his hands — gold — and opted to keep it simple by turning a camera on the women as they sat at a table and just letting them go. Some film clips and archival footage of stage work are included, but mostly it’s conversation of an intensely entertaining kind.
The women, all in their 80s, are still working, except for Plowright, whose vision is impaired. Their continued employment sparks a bit of teasing directed at the very busy Dench, for snagging “all the parts” left for older actresses.
Other topics include health issues, as you might expect, problems women face in showbiz (such as coping with beauty expectations) and noteworthy, and often comical, incidents that have happened on stage and on the set. Surprises emerge, such as Smith’s admission that she has never seen “Downton Abbey,” though she acted in it.
Some of the most intriguing material comes from Plowright and involves Laurence Olivier, to whom she was married (the film was shot at the country estate they shared). She also recalls being told by a director early in her career that she “can’t play queens.” Atkins talks about turning down the role of Cleopatra four times because she didn’t feel she was good-looking enough and how she would advise her younger self to be less bad-tempered.
All the women are good company, but in some ways Dench is the star of the show. She laughs often as she kibitzes with the others and seems not at all in awe of herself. There’s a great, all-too-brief bit of footage of her playing Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” in 1968. We also see her in green makeup for a role in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that same year.
The temptation in reviewing “Tea With the Dames” is simply to reprint verbatim snippets of their marvelous conversation, but you need to see these amazing women deliver their verbal sallies: You will be reminded why they are dames.
I guarantee that the appearance of the end credits will leave you wanting much more.