The documentary “Tea With the Dames” — in which we get to hang vicariously with four of the English theater’s greatest living actresses as they share good gossip and reflect on their lives — is pure catnip for movie lovers, drama geeks and anybody who loves a good yarn.
The four old friends are, in alphabetical order, Dame Eileen Atkins, 84; Dame Judi Dench, 83; Dame Joan Plowright, 88; and Dame Maggie Smith, 83. According to the introduction, they often get together from time to time out in the country to chat about this and that, having grown up together as young thespians and grown old together working together occasionally in plays, movies and television.
Most recently, Dench and Smith co-starred in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011) and its 2015 sequel, while Smith and Atkins worked together in Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001), and Dench, Smith and Plowright all appeared in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Tea With Mussolini” (1999). But their paths have been crossing for decades.
When they get together, they often reminisce about their days in the National Theatre, often working with — and suffering the criticism of — Plowright’s husband, the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier. Smith tells some of the funniest and cattiest stories, like when she describes playing Desdemona opposite Olivier’s blackface Othello, and how Olivier, in character, once struck her hard across the face. “I like say that was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” Smith says in a perfect deadpan.
Smith isn’t the only one who can drop a tart remark. At one point, a production assistant shows Dench and Atkins some footage of Dench’s boarding-school theatrical appearances, and Atkins takes one look at the teen-age Dench and remarks “Did you have tits even then?”
The foursome compare notes on everything from playing the lead in “Antony and Cleopatra” to balancing work with motherhood (all but Atkins have had children) to working alongside their actor husbands. (Plowright was married to Olivier; Smith to the stage actor Robert Stephens; Dench to the late Richard Williams, and they co-starred on a sitcom “A Fine Romance”; and Atkins was married briefly to “Game of Thrones” actor Julian Glover.)
Dench and Smith reflect on the oddness of appearing in major movie franchises — James Bond and Harry Potter, respectively — while Plowright tells how her American agent once told her he’d find “some cameo that Judi hasn’t gotten her hands on yet.” And on it goes like this, as the women gently poke at each other and laugh the way only true old friends can.
Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “My Cousin Rachel”) augments the conversation with a wealth of archival photos and video, which are eye-opening and sometimes downright odd. (The weirdest is seeing Dench, at 34 in 1968, as a green-skinned fairy queen Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) The added material doesn’t detract from the lively conversations, as these four acting legends are caught in the act of just being themselves.
‘Tea With the Dames’
Opened Sept. 21 in select cities; opens Friday, Oct. 19, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 84 minutes.