Reel Dad: Tea with the Dames: A delightful conversation

To act, on stage and screen, can be a lifetime pursuit of tempting truth.

To acknowledge, privately, what gifts may be missing while portraying, publicly, what gives should be recognized, can create lives filled with artistic friction as actors confront who they are and who they want to be.

For anyone who has seen four remarkable actors on stage — the Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins — is to sit back with awe at how they masterfully create people with words and expression. Yes, it’s all illusion, as these actors freely admit. Still, it’s illusion born out of self-awareness, commitment to craft, and a passion for making make believe look, sound and feel true.

Rarely do we get to hear these actors talk about themselves beyond the predictable interviews that accompany movie or television promotions. But director Roger Michell, best known for Notting Hill, shifts from narrative to documentary by placing his cameras inside a conversation between these four theatrical legends. The ladies, who apparently get together now and then to catch up, with tea but without the cameras, don’t let the presence of a crew stifle their candor. Instead they seem to relish the chance to simply be themselves without having to remember any lines.

That these ladies have known each other for years is no surprise, nor are the professional intersections they share. Michell’s camera lets us inside the personal side to their connections, how they have “been there” for each other through the ups and downs of careers and relationships. Plowright, who was married to Laurence Olivier, recalls, with Smith, the common experiences of working with such a theatrical legend, while Dench, who continues to work a great deal, gets teased by the others for taking all the good parts. Smith, who won three Emmys for her work in Downton Abbey, claims never to have watched the series while Atkins admits that her nerves can be so intense when she works on stage that, while traveling to the theater, she often hopes to get hit by a car.

Such admissions make the film great fun as if we get to eavesdrop on a party to which we couldn’t snag an invitation. Never do the ladies appear to perform; they simply are themselves, women who have fought many years to do quality work, no matter the disappointments they face or the odds they overcome. Enriched by delectable clips from past performances, Michell lets us see the actors in their prime as he studies the actors reflecting on their journeys. Without bitterness or regret, the ladies recognize their successes, smile at their failures, and happily look forward, knowing that fewer opportunities to work may come their way.

If there is a shortcoming to the film, it’s the short running time. Michell spent a day with these ladies and we get a bit over 90 minutes. Somehow it doesn’t feel fair, after waiting so long to get to know them, to leave the theater wanting so much more. Because we want to know more about how they continue to tempt truth.

Film Nutritional Value: Tea with the Dames

  • Content: High. Robert Michell’s sensitively packaged tribute to Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins makes us happy to have known these actors for so many years.
  • Entertainment: High. For those of us who savor the work of these actors, the film is magical; for those experiencing them for the first time, the film should be fascinating.
  • Message: High. No matter how many years these ladies have worked, they remind us that, no matter the age, people can still contribute and continue to learn.
  • Relevance: High. Anyone who savors the work of these actors will savor the chance to see behind the screen.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children can have a rich conversation of the ways these ladies reveal themselves beyond the characters they play.

Tea With the Dames (originally titled Nothing Like a Dame in the UK) runs 1 hour, 34 minutes. It is not rated. The film is available in theaters and online streaming on Prime Video. 4 Popcorn Buckets. 

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench: Two cinema treasures

The lovely documentary Tea with the Dames takes us inside the lives of four grand actors, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins.

Two recent films — starring Smith and Dench — that remind us how lovely these ladies can be on screen.

The Lady in the Van (Maggie Smith)

Anyone who savors any chance to watch Maggie Smith on screen will love The Lady in the Van, a film from 2016 now available for home viewing.

Maggie plays an elderly woman who — for reasons we only learn in the film’s final moments — chooses to live “under the social radar” in a rundown van she parks on the streets of an upscale London neighborhood. When the neighbors object, she asks a man in the neighborhood if she can park her van in his driveway. He agrees. And she stays for 15 years.

That’s about all that happens. Maggie drives, arrives, talks and stays, and reminds us — with every moment — why she is considered one of the most powerful actresses of her generation. In lesser hands, this story could have felt like an extended sketch without surprise to maintain its momentum. But Smith makes us believe every nuance of every phrase this woman speaks, from the ways she pleads with her “landlord” to how she interacts with her “neighbors” to how she bargains with a well-intentioned social worker. While carefully protecting the character’s backstory until the final reveal, Smith artfully uses the lady’s mystery to add shadings to the performance. No matter what we don’t know about this woman, this marvelous actress lets us inside a most persistent, protective and practical person who can’t understand why her choices and requests were create any fuss.

For fans who only know Smith from her scene-stealing work in Downton Abbey, The Lady in the Van reminds us what an engaging and touching actress this two-time Oscar winner can be.

Philomena (Judi Dench)

As a woman who recalls her younger years with regret, Judi Dench reminds us, in Philomena, from 2013, how powerful she can be when the material inspires her passion.

That’s not to say that playing ‘M’ in the James Bond films is movie sleepwalking. But there’s more to Dench than a franchise film can demand. In Philomena, she makes us believe in the quiet desperation of a mother who simply wants to know if, over the years, the son she lost ever thought of her. She can live with her regrets as long as she knows she may have played a role in his life.

In the mid-1950s in Ireland, Philomena is a teenaged single mother living in a convent where she works long hours and cherishes the moments she gets to spend with her young son. What she doesn’t know, at first, is that the convent offers its children up for adoption without a mother’s consent. Years later, Philomena still lives the wounds of that moment. She wonders, as any parent would, what happened to her son, who he became, how he lived, if he knew his Irish roots. A former journalist hears her story, arranges a writing assignment, and convinces Philomena to let him describe her journey to explore her son’s life.

As beautifully played by Dench, Philomena is a practical woman who refuses to wallow in sadness. She will not feel like a victim. But a mother’s love runs deep and, no matter how she tries to acknowledge her realities, Dench reveals the wounds that do not easily heal.

Thank goodness these ladies continue to work.

And that they let us see behind the screen in Tea with the Dames.