The late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel famously used to ask of the films he would review: “Is this movie more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”
We get to find out to some degree in “Tea with the Dames,” an engaging documentary about four of Britain’s greatest living actresses — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins. Director Roger Michell films the foursome at Plowright’s rambling country house as they reflect on their careers, childhoods and the experience of growing old.
Apparently, the four women often get together in real life to catch up, and Michell tries to stay out of their way, capturing as much of their natural interactions as possible. They tease each other about their hearing aids, reminisce about stage productions from a half century ago as if they were yesterday, and talk in great detail about their craft.
What’s striking is that, for all of their accomplishments, they still approach acting with the same mix of fear and awe that they did as teenagers. “They don’t realize that we’re shaking inside,” Dench says. She’s the only one of the four who dared to played Cleopatra on stage, a role that daunted the others. (Well, Smith played the role onstage in Canada, but that apparently doesn’t count for much.) Dench can still quote verbatim from a bad review she received in 1960 — she doesn’t read them anymore.
The foursome tell some great stories from the theater, such as Smith talking about playing Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier’s Othello at the National Theatre in London in 1962, and Olivier accidentally slapping her hard during a scene. “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” she quips.
While there is a little talk about the actresses' most famous roles, such as Dench as M in the James Bond movies and Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess on “Downton Abbey” (she confesses she’s never seen the show), “Tea with the Dames” refreshingly focuses more on their early stage roles in the 1950s and 1960s.
There’s a wealth of archival footage, including a spunky young Dench in a television adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” and a spirited Smith in “Othello." It's a reminder just how long these octogenarians have been acting and how good they’ve been throughout.
Plowright is the only one of the four who is semi-retired, due to a debilitating blindness, and Atkins is probably the least known to American audiences (she plays Queen Mary on Netflix’s “The Crown.”) As the tea turns to champagne and they talk about their mortality and the indignities of aging, the four women stop being famous actresses and seem like any other group of old friends.
There is an element of performance in “Tea with the Dames” — Michell lets us see the cameras and the boom mics to remind us of that. But the documentary gives us a remarkably unguarded look inside the heads of four extraordinary women. May they all have many more roles to come.