British acting legends shoot the poop for shits and giggles

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Tea With The Dames
RPL Film Theatre

February 8–10

In theory, the idea that inspires Tea With The Dames is a winner: four British stage legends — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins — hanging out in front of the cameras as they periodically do in private. They’ve all been honoured by the monarchy with the title of “Dame” and have been crossing paths for over 60 years.

In practice, however, there are challenges the documentary fails to solve. The main one: the after knowing each other for so long, the Dames have a shorthand conversation style the audience doesn’t know, and it takes a while to get familiar with it.

Outside a couple of individual interviews and archive footage, the setup is simple: the four sit around a big table and gab. Director Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill) prompts them by suggesting topics — beginnings, the ’60s, husbands, Shakespeare — and lets the Dames go at it. The conversation isn’t always fluid but there are a lot of anecdotes to enjoy.

The ladies are mostly coy but whenever they forget to be diplomatic, there are belly laughs: Maggie Smith refers to Downton Abbey as “that wretched thing”; Judi Dench hates being patronized because of her age. None of them is big on sentimentality, but the memory of their husbands ­— particularly Plowright’s, Laurence Olivier, who worked with them all — gives pause.

At 80 minutes, Tea With The Dames feels like a teaser. Sure, we’re treated to the illusion of intimacy and some witty rapport (mostly by Maggie Smith), but one leaves the theatre thinking the movie only scratched the surface. Maybe someday we’ll get an encore.