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Mark Johnson, IFC Films
In "Tea with the Dames," friends Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench reflect on the experiences and lessons of their decadeslong careers.

“TEA WITH THE DAMES” — 3 stars — Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith; PG-13 (brief strong language and references to adult subject matter); in general release

“Tea with the Dames” lives up to its title. Throughout this documentary, we see four powerhouse British actresses sipping tea while spilling tea — and it's just as charming as you'd expect.

Set in Dame Joan Plowright’s British countryside home, Roger Michell's film shuffles between an idyllic array of cozy outdoor and indoor settings. Friends Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins join Plowright to reflect on the experiences and lessons of their decadeslong careers. That reflection comes with plenty of casual banter and even some interaction with the crew — at one point, we see Smith chide an overenthusiastic photographer offscreen.

Mark Johnson, IFC Films
Actress Maggie Smith in "Tea with the Dames."

It's a casual tea party, but we get a broad view of these four beloved actresses. We learn how Dench and Smith met in the late 1950s, and how Atkins spent her early childhood as a dancer before discovering a love of the stage at 10 years old. We also learn that most of the actresses initially sought careers on the stage, though each eventually made her way into film. Although the scope is wide, the ebb and flow of Michell's effort does periodically zero in on insightful topics.

One such topic is fear. At one point, Plowright complains that while critics assume actresses all have tremendous egos and self-confidence, “they don’t realize we’re shaking inside.” This fear is explored as the dames share their grapples with offers to portray Cleopatra on stage, shying away from a role associated with superior physical beauty.

Beauty is another fascinating topic. Atkins shares a moving experience where she overheard people discussing her looks, and how without her knowing it, that conversation wound up driving much of her career. Such moments show us just how driven and inspiring these actresses are, to have overcome the criticism that runs rampant in the performing industry to establish such accomplished careers.

Mark Johnson, IFC Films
Actress Joan Plowright in "Tea with the Dames."

Aside from the actresses, “Tea with the Dames’” most frequent subject is Plowright’s husband, distinguished actor Laurence Olivier. Prompted by the director's offscreen questions, all the dames reflect on performing alongside their significant others, but Plowright gets many opportunities to reflect on her relationship with the famous actor.

We see clips of Olivier in famous Shakespearean roles, and footage of the dames’ performances on stage and in film is scattered throughout the film’s 84-minute running time. It’s interesting to hear the veteran actresses share their thoughts on what constitutes “natural” acting, the proper way to perform Shakespeare and the honor of getting royal titles.

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Observations like these feel like random gems sifted from the filler. The casual format is almost too laid back and scattered at times, but for those who may only know Smith and Dench from their characters in franchises like “Harry Potter” and the recent James Bond films, “Tea with the Dames” is an endearing introduction to a wealth of celebrated performances. And for those who are well-acquainted with the dames, the film is everything you'd expect it to be and more.

"Tea with the Dames" is rated PG-13 for some brief strong language and references to adult subject matter; running time: 84 minutes.