It seems rather cold to call Tea with the Dames (★★★★) a documentary. Rather than passively observe, it sits in the midst of its action, as it were, giving the viewers an amusing, engaging, and emotional insight into a group of friends whose bonds span over 50 years. That those friends are also some of the world’s most respected and lauded actresses makes Tea with the Dames feel more like an intimate home movie mixed with a gameshow prize-winning opportunity to meet a celebrity. Or, in this case, four of them.
The Dames in question are Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith. Collectively, their careers span more than 250 years and awards ranging from Oliviers and BAFTAs, to Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes and Oscars (two, in Smith’s case). They have graced screens both silver and small, and stages across the globe. But more than any of their vast and varied accomplishments, from delivering Shakespeare to appearing in blockbuster franchises, they are also firm and fast friends, a social group that has regularly retired to Plowright’s country cottage to rest and reminisce. And it’s here that Roger Michell (Notting Hill) captures them.
Michell keeps an incredibly light touch throughout the movie’s 84-minute runtime. We alternate through various groupings — all four women, or occasionally in pairs, or at one point Plowright alone on her balcony — and through various topics, from their early start in theater, to working with their husbands onscreen, to growing old. Michell occasionally guides the discussion with a thrown question or topic, but this is very much hands-off filmmaking, or the appearance thereof, leaving the foursome to talk amongst themselves. The editing is relaxed, and crewmembers drift in and out of scenes bringing drinks, assisting the women, or, at one point, offering a laptop with a video of Dench performing in the early ’50s.
There’s no artifice employed, egregious effects, or overly emotive music. Instead, Michell’s only trick is to cut the discussions with footage and photos from the four Dames’ performances over the years, as well as occasional glimpses of their home movies or photo albums. Rather, the focus is predominantly on the words of Atkins, Dench, Plowright, and Smith — and it is here that Tea with the Dames makes itself essential viewing. Their recollections, their ruminations, and even their occasional sniping all play out with wit, warmth, and the assured certainty of friends who are deeply devoted to one another.
Tea with the Dames is far from the most complex film you will see this year, and it’s by no means the most impactful documentary in recent memory. But to spend even ten minutes in the company of four of acting’s greats — hearing their thoughts, listening to their anecdotes, enjoying their comradery — is a fine thing indeed.
Tea with the Dames is playing at Landmark’s E Street Theatre, 555 11th St. NW. Visit landmarktheatres.com.