I went into this one with a great deal of trepidation, mainly because of how its being marketed in Germany. First they’re pushing it as a “Film by the director of Notting Hill”, as if that could ever be a good thing. And they’ve changed the title to “Tea with the Dames”. You can just sense the marketing department slavering at the thought of being able to slip in the phrase “quintessentially English”, by which they mean entirely populated by white poshoes with floppy fringes.
Yet the 4 actresses whose conversations the film follows – Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins – don’t seem all that posh. Dench admits to having gone to boarding school, but it was run by Quakers, and their early films, some of which are shown in snippets, were from the time when working class actors and actresses were starting to gain a voice.
The film still has plenty of royalty porn – pictures of the actresses looking embarrassed while the queen or Prince Charles hands them their damedome, but when asked whether they considered refusing the title, they say yes but they ended up accepting for their parents or because that’s what all their circle was doing.
It carries on trying to keep it safe, but ends up being undermined by its subjects. So out of nowhere we’re regaled with tales of going to demos against the Vietnam war and the shame of not getting arrested.
And then there’s the issue of ageing. Many of the actresses have starred in very comfortable films and tv programmes where the ageing process is seen as very innocuous (the thingy marigold hotel, say, or Downtown Abbey. Actually thinking of it, these may have shown something else at all, but the overwhelming cosiness of it all stopped me from looking much closer). In this film we see that Plowright is now blind, and none of them hears half of what anyone has said properly, but there’s also a raging against the dying of the light.
Dench explains that she’s not intending to die, and recounts telling someone to fuck off for asking “How are we?” and whether she has a carer.
To sum up, this feels like a film that is planned very conservatively, but can’t get round the fact that its protagonists are much too interesting for that. It’s a bit self-congratulatory and it helps to have a working knowledge of mid twentieth century british theatre, but it rises above itself often enough to be worth a watch.