To create “Tea With The Dames,” director Roger Mitchell brought four legendary British actresses, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Joan Plowright, to the cottage that Plowright shared with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, set up some cameras and hit record.
The four women, all in their 80s, are — it instantly becomes clear — old friends, who have done this kind of thing before, just never in front of the lens. So they sit and trade stories, reminiscences and thoughts about acting, from their earliest years on stage in the 1950s through the massive movies — James Bond and Harry Potter pictures — that brought Dench and Smith widespread, late-career fame.
Interestingly, the quartet largely treats film as an afterthought, talking far more about working on stage, dealing with the male-dominated British theater world and, almost universally, the terror and reward of acting with Olivier.
Forced to move inside by rain, the quartet talks about their continuing careers — only Plowright, who is losing her sight, doesn’t still act — as well as the infirmities of old age. (There’s a running joke about the need for hearing aids.) And near the end of the picture, they offer some insightful advice to their younger selves.
Along the way, Mitchell scatters in old clips of filmed plays, including a color version of “Othello” with Olivier in the title role, shots from the actress’ films, including Smith’s 1969 Oscar-winning turn in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and plenty of footage of them at awards shows and pictures of them with their children and husbands.
There’s no narrative thread in the film, nor is there any effort to arrange the conversation chronologically or thematically. Rather, it really is the four charming, funny, and self-deprecatingly honest dames sitting down for a cup of tea — and later a glass of champagne — and having a chat.