A documentary by Roger Michell. Rated PG
If you’ve caught Tracey Ullman in the last two years, you know she does dead-on impersonations of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench—the former limitlessly condescending and the latter a “national treasure” who can get away with just about anything.
Their actual outsized personalities do not disappoint in this lively and intimate doc, less than 90 minutes long, that finds these grandes dames featured on national stamps, as well as in movies of every possible stripe. They are egged on here by the same-aged Eileen Atkins, better known for her stage work, and Joan Plowright, who’s five years older and now completely blind. Plowright, like all of them a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, has long hosted the other three for an annual get-together at the country estate she used to share with Laurence Olivier, the sir she married in 1961, after his divorce from Vivien Leigh.
Our invitation to this gabfest—called Tea With the Dames in the U.K., rather than the South Pacific–derived title—comes courtesy of Roger Michell, director of fun fluff like Notting Hill and thornier things such as The Mother and My Cousin Rachel. The 60-ish filmmaker doesn’t mind being the butt of their dame-ish jokes, if it keeps the Earl Grey and bons mots flowing. (The Champagne comes later.) He also dug up a considerable amount of footage of their early—sometimes childhood—work for stage, screen, and television, much of it unfamiliar to North American viewers. Their anecdotes have a distinctly retrospective air, despite the fact that those first two are busier than ever.
Along the way, we learn that Smith has yet to see an episode of Downton Abbey. “They did send me a box set,” she says with a lip curl worthy of the Dowager Crawley. And Dench explains her approach to Shakespeare: “You have to bring it down to your size. Otherwise, it’s just empty booming.” Atkins brings up the subject they all shared: being married to handsome actors and starting careers when none were considered “conventionally attractive”. Some struggled with the notion of playing Cleopatra on-stage. “I did it once,” Dame Maggie admits. “But only in Canada.”