Monday With Mildred: “Tea with the Dames”

Tea With The Dames movie poster

Tea with the Dames

When I first saw this title I thought it was some kind of noir, but when it came to my mailbox it turned out to be a short and precious documentary. Precious because the subjects of the film are four titans of English theatre and film. The director spent an afternoon with these very elderly actresses, asking questions and giving us a glimpse of the super elite world of high art in the theater and the big screen over seven decades. Read all of these names with the honorific Dame in front.

The setting is the home of Joan Plowright Olivier (Equus 1977, The Diary of Anne Frank 1983, Last Action Hero, 101 Dalmatians, Tea with Mussolini, and a ton of theater), who was not only a huge name in acting for decades, but the wife of Laurence Olivier for twenty eight years. She’s there with four friends who have been close since the 60s. She’s the quiet one, with hearing and sight compromised by age, but obviously much loved by her compatriots. When you see the film clips you’ll recognize her, though her name isn’t well known to American audiences.

The tall and thin lady is Eileen Atkins (Equus 1977, Oliver Twist 1983, The Avengers 1998, The Crown, Doc Martin), another you will recognize once you see her though a lot of her work has been in the theater and as a writer.

These women have been friends for a very long time, and they know each other very well. All of them are powerful icons of British theater and film, with the accompanying attitude, so the dynamic between them is endlessly fascinating. They’re close and love each other, but each has a personal power that transcends their friendship.

This is especially apparent with the other two women, Judi Dench (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1968, Henry V 1989, Goldeneye 1995, Shakespeare in Love 1998, Tea with Mussolini 1999, The Chronicles of Riddick 2004, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2011, Philomena 2013, and a bunch of Bond movies including Skyfall 2012) and Maggie Smith (Othello 1965, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Death on the Nile 1978, Clash of the Titans 1981, Sister Act, The First Wives Club, Tea with Mussolini, Harry Potter).

All of them downplay the importance of their careers to some extent, but you can tell they’re just being gracious and actually fully understand their importance in the grand scheme of film and theater. The director throws softball subjects at them with a word or a sentence. Sometimes the ladies laugh and launch into fun and fascinating stories, but sometimes they look at each other a bit before carefully giving an answer, often looking to the head of the table where Joan Olivier resides. Even when the director separates the four and pairs them up on an uncomfortable looking settee, the women seem at once at ease and open as well as circumspect and careful of the words as they tell one story after another of their early life in the world of Hollywood and the theater.

Before they get tired, right around the time the champagne comes out, there are a lot of great stories and fascinating old film which, for a history geek like me, is awesome and totally entertaining. Because all of them are very elderly, though, they do become obviously weary, and things are wrapped up, but I could watch this kind of thing for hours so I was a little disappointed. I also thought the director was too careful in the questions he asked. The most daring thing he did was ask how they all got along with Joan’s husband, who was the unquestioned king of acting for decades. There should have been a gold mine of stories there, but oh well.

If you’re at all interested in the history of film and theater, not all of it Hollywood, then you might really enjoy this little documentary. Obviously, you should be sure to see Tea with Mussolini because three of them were in it, and, Cher. I watched it with a smile on my face the whole time, though I kept thinking the questions were too easy and I wanted something more in depth, a little more fangs, but overall I enjoyed it quite a bit and recommend this quiet little gem.

LINKS: 

Tea With The Dames – Official Trailer I HD I IFC Films

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