September 17, 2019

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Taking tea with theatre legends

Documentary on four dames shot over one day

In this warm and winning documentary, we seem to be having tea with four old friends.

Well, yes, there are makeup artists doing their bit, a photographer sometimes snapping a pic and the off-screen voice of director Roger Michell occasionally butting in with a question.

And the friends — Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith — all happen to be dames (as in Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, awarded for services to drama).

Still, the full effect of this film is not theatricality, but naturalness. (And one of the recurring topics of conversation is the delicate relationship between these two qualities as it plays out in acting.)

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In this warm and winning documentary, we seem to be having tea with four old friends.

Well, yes, there are makeup artists doing their bit, a photographer sometimes snapping a pic and the off-screen voice of director Roger Michell occasionally butting in with a question.

And the friends — Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith — all happen to be dames (as in Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, awarded for services to drama).

Still, the full effect of this film is not theatricality, but naturalness. (And one of the recurring topics of conversation is the delicate relationship between these two qualities as it plays out in acting.)

Nothing Like a Dame (also called Tea with the Dames in the U.K.) is a shapeless film, but it seems to be deliberately shapeless, wanting us to encounter these women not as performers but as people. Michell (best known for the rom-com Notting Hill, but also the man behind unusual indie films like The Mother and Venus) shoots the quartet over the course of one day, clearly meaning the footage to feel like ordinary chat. The talk wanders and lags and occasionally peters out as the women, now in their mid-to-late 80s, reminisce about work and men and children and old times. They laugh over past scandals, tease Dench about snapping up all the current octogenarian parts, and recall random bits of dialogue and songs from decades ago.

Mark Johnson / TNS</p><p>Dames Maggie Smith (from left), Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in the documentary Nothing Like a Dame.</p></p>

Mark Johnson / TNS

Dames Maggie Smith (from left), Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in the documentary Nothing Like a Dame.

Dench is best known in North America for her work in the Bond films, while Smith is, of course, famous for her role in Downton Abbey. (Smith admits she’s never actually watched the heritage soaper — "They gave me a box set," she whispers guiltily — and her chief takeaway from the series is that the Dowager Countess’s hats were very heavy.)

The women spend most of the time talking about their theatrical work. Plowright speaks of the joy of getting a really meaty role and not just being on stage as "a decorative bit, or support," as she sometimes was to her more famous husband, Laurence Olivier.

Atkins remarks that every generation of actors is convinced of their naturalism, which the next generation inevitably finds artificial. They bring up theatrical conventions we find appalling now — Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface — "all that gunge," Smith recalls — or Smith relating that her first theatrical role was playing "a Chinese boy in an opium den."

They discuss stage fright. "Use it as petrol" for your performance, Dench advises. Atkins admits she never felt confident enough to attempt the role of legendary beauty Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Dench says she warned her director he would be getting "a menopausal dwarf" in the role. Dame Maggie remarks that she didn’t feel up to taking on Cleopatra in England, so she did it in Canada instead. (Ouch.) The women also joke that the men playing Antony always start complaining about halfway through the production when they realize they’re not actually the star.

All the talk is cut with footage and stills of the quartet as young — poignantly young — women, revisiting the gritty Kitchen Sink realism of the 1950s and the swinging London of the 1960s and the Hollywood crossovers of the 1970s. In a bigger sense, the film becomes about time and memory, youth and age, and the ways that friendship connects us through it all.

The film also makes points — sometimes subtle, sometimes very frank — about the ways in which women, especially older women, are overlooked and underestimated. Dame Judi relates a story in which a paramedic says to her, in condescending tones, "What is our name, and do we have a carer?"

To which Dame Judi replies (very crisply indeed): "F—k off. I’ve just done eight weeks of A Winter’s Tale at The Garrick."

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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