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Transmission Films' Tea with the Dames is pitched as "a unique celebration of the lives and careers of four of our most iconic actresses – Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie Smith." Given the title and the film's promo poster of said Dames sitting all lady-like in a picturesque, quintessentially English country garden, snapped mid-giggle ("ah hahaha, oh how we laughed"!), you'd be forgiven for expecting it to be a quaint little afternoon soiree of a film. Pass the jam and cream, please.
Directed by Roger Michell (My Cousin Rachel, Notting Hill), though in reality, driven by Maggie Smith's acerbic wit, Tea with the Dames offers a lot more than a bit of countryside tea-sipping while telling tales of old. It's genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Filmed at Joan Plowright's English cottage, the film joyfully moves largely chronologically through each Dame's career, spanning theatre, film and television, and includes personal aspects of their lives – handled with care during the more sensitive moments. There is some emphasis on their earlier treading of the boards, which provides a fabulous visual history lesson for those who only know their film work and no doubt a joy for those who recognise the women in their pre-film roles.
Moving from room to room, the casual, fly-on-the-wall style doco includes candid, to-camera, would-be outtakes and banter with crew left in (providing pure gold), as the women open up about everything from the challenges of the industry (still relevant today) to the filmmaking process, finding the courage to face their fears, which Dench describes as "petrol", their families, and of course, ageing, which brings up several brilliant moments I won't spoil by mentioning here. All of which they beautifully articulate with both Dame-like poise and at times, unsuccessfully stifled g'faws that turn into full-blown cackles and snorts. Watching real-life pals Maggie and Judi cracking each other up is infectious.
Should you feel you only know the Dames' film/latter work (as I did), that doesn't matter either. It's beautifully edited – filling in any of the blanks and would-be privates jokes with carefully selected archive material, which is fabulous to see in itself. If there are parts of their histories you're not quite sure of, it'll inspire you to learn more. Just as I was contemplating the same, I heard a fellow cinema-goer say to her friend at the film's close, "I'm going to have to go and Google them now."
While I was possibly the youngest person in the (full!) house, much to my surprise, it's not just a film for an, ahem, 'older' audience. It's an absolute hoot. Forget polite chit-chat over tea in the garden. Replace the tea with gin, and brace yourself for a roar-filled romp with women at the peak of their powers.