Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in a scene from documentary film Tea With the Dames.
Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in a scene from documentary film Tea With the Dames.

MOVIE REVIEW: Acting legends reveal their backstage secrets

TEA With The Dames is a much more bracing experience than its mild, milky title suggests.

Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright might all be well into their 80s, but none of these formidable thespians has lost their appreciation for a strong and invigorating brew.

One of the joys - as well as the frustrations - of Roger Michell's respectful but not overly reverential documentary is the wealth of material it (partially) unearths.

When Dench observes that she and Atkins might have "swung a bit early" in relation to the '60s, Michell teases moviegoers with a montage of some of their more indelible performances at the time.

The rest is pretty much left to our imaginations - although another jigsaw piece falls into place when Dench is later asked what advice she would give her younger self and she replies: "Try not to be so susceptible to falling in love."

Judi Dench in a scene from the movie Tea With The Dames.
Judi Dench in a scene from the movie Tea With The Dames. Mark Johnson

Perhaps gender plays a part here. Where the great male actors might have held court, their female counterparts hold back a little more.

This is an ensemble piece, not a monologue - which gives us a neat segue into the discussion surrounding the heady days of the National Theatre, founded by Plowright's husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, a universally acknowledged limelight hogger, in the early 1960s.

The chemistry between Olivier's Othello and Smith's Desdemona is rendered even more electric by the backstage anecdotes that have preceded it.

Tea With The Dames is also a performance of sorts, and it's fascinating to see the actresses' occasional discomfort at being asked to reveal themselves.

Smith is perhaps the most ill at ease in this role. She is the wariest of Michell's subjects. And the most brutally funny.

All four actresses acknowledge the terror that is part of the job description.

"Fear is the petrol," says Dench.

And despite their formidable screen and stage personas, each of them is candid about their self-doubt.

Plowright and Atkins, for example, profess not to have had the courage to take on Cleopatra at all (as they freely admit, none of them is a conventional beauty.)

Eileen Atkins in a scene from the movie Tea With The Dames.
Eileen Atkins in a scene from the movie Tea With The Dames. Mark Johnson

Smith appeared in a Canadian production, she says, to escape scrutiny. Dench initially refused the role, telling director Peter Hall her version would be a "menopausal dwarf."

Tea With The Dames has an abundance of good lines.

And of course they are impeccably delivered. More surprising, perhaps, is the appreciative audience the actresses provide for each other. Their laughter is hearty. And infectious.

Michell directs with a light, sure touch - as is to be expected from the man behind The Mother, Venus and Le Week-end, as well as Notting Hill (three films that eviscerate ageist stereotypes.)

Funny, poignant, inspiring.

Tea With The Dames opens tomorrow.


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