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Tea with the Dames

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Tea with the Dames Movie Poster Image
Talky doc fun for fans but unlikely to hold teen interest.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 81 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Life is better with friends. Don't listen to critics. Even "the greats" are scared of new situations and challenges, but as Dame Judi Dench explains, "fear is petrol" -- harness it, and it fuels you. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The actresses don't let professional competition get in the way of friendship. As young actresses, some of the women were told that they weren't attractive enough to succeed, but they persevered -- and achieved significant success. They've all lived long enough to have made plenty of mistakes, but that has helped make their lives and careers richer.

Violence

Historical news footage of a protest-turned-riot shows police repeatedly kicking a protestor on the ground. An actor receives a hard smack across the face instead of a stage slap during a performance.

Sex

Comical story about catching a woman having sex. Actress speaks about feeling confident after being described as "sexy." Two actresses laugh about how the theater environment is "loose" and how they "behaved really badly" in the '60s, accompanied by a montage of images from films that imply that they're talking about sex. Performance clips include kisses and a man with his pants around his ankles. The women recall when they refused to stay at a hotel that was a "knocking shop."

Language

Infrequent; words including "crappy," "t-ts," and "f--k off." In the context of a film clip, a woman screams "filthy, stinking copper" to a police officer.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The women sip champagne. A role is described as "Chinese boy in an opium den." One stage performance clip has actors talk about getting drunk while holding cocktails and lit cigarettes. A man is shown smoking in news footage from 1963.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tea with the Dames is a documentary in which four of England's most accomplished actresses -- Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins -- reminisce about their lives, friendship, and performances. They share insights into life in the theater, including the pressure to be pretty, dealing with intimidating male colleagues, and gossipy tidbits about other actors. They also discuss the difficulties that come with aging, working with spouses, and other adult matters; the greatest takeaway is the women's observation that life brings rewards and challenges, but it's friends who make life worth living. Adults who know and appreciate the four actresses will probably be quite entertained, but this isn't the kind of stuff that's likely to engage younger viewers. Still, other than two uses of "f--k," there's not too much for parents to be concerned about: The limited amount of drinking, smoking, violence, and sexy stuff is mostly in film clips and/or archival news footage.

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What's the story?

TEA WITH THE DAMES brings together four of England's most renowned Dames of the Arts -- who, it turns out, are also close friends who've worked and played together for more than half a century. The film follows Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins as they meet for a weekend in the countryside to reflect on their personal and professional experiences. 

Is it any good?

This movie is everything the title suggests: It's a group of respected older women having everyday conversation over tea (and champagne). Although their everyday conversation isn't the same as most people's, the delivery lacks the sizzle the setup promises. When four of the acting world's greatest performers, who are also dear friends, gather for a chat, you'd hope that a director as skilled as Notting Hill's Roger Michell would coax out profound insights and shocking untold stories delivered with resonance. But that's not what happens. The women titter over memories of classical actors, unfair directors, and harsh critics, but issues that could be really revelatory are glazed over. 

Part of this is due to Michell's chosen format. His intention in Tea with the Dames was to position viewers as the fifth friend, joining the actresses at the table and seeing them unvarnished and authentic. What that means in practice is witnessing the moments where hearing aids need to be turned up, where conversation runs dry, and where an icon gets fed up with the production staff. It's real all right -- and die-hard fans of the actresses will likely eat it up -- but including the "between takes" moments sometimes feels disrespectful. The benefit of the movie's fly-on-the-wall scenario is overhearing the familiar conversation among longtime trusted buddies, but the downside is that, for many, it may be too inside: They mention friends by first names only, quote miscellaneous lines of dialogue from a play, or allude to situations most audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with. Fans of British theater and these Grand Dames will soak up every minute, but for a general audience, the tea is too bland.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Tea with the Dames shows the value of maintaining friendships over a long period of time. Where do people typically meet friends? What can be gained from having friends with different -- and similar -- backgrounds and lifestyles?

  • How can professional rivalry affect friendship? Why do you think these women didn't let competitiveness get in the way of their friendship? 

  • The actresses talk about hearing criticism of their physical appearance during their careers. How did that affect their decisions? How did they persevere

  • Maggie Smith says that "The point [of Damehood] is for the people who got you where you are, it's not really for you." What does she mean by that? Is that an example of gratitude?

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