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Tea With the Dames overstays its welcome

Tea With the Dames overstays its welcome

I'm perplexed by Tea With The Dames, a documentary (I guess?) that features 4 extraordinary British actresses, who are also true-to-life Dames, regaling each other with stories of life, love, and their long careers on stage and screen.  It's a meandering trifle of a film.  Who is this for?  And what are we, as the audience, supposed to take away?  None of it was bad, per se, and some sequences are even engaging, but I'm befuddled as to why this movie exists, and it seems like by the end of the hour and twenty-two-minute runtime, The Dames tend to agree.

According to a title card that begins the film, Dames Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith get together every so often in the English Countryside to enjoy tea and each others' company.  The filmmakers seek to capture one of those sessions.  The film begins interestingly enough, with Maggie Smith being a clear standout in the group.  She's sharp, witty, and engaged.  Judi Dench is similarly game to trade wisecracks and recount the glory days with her friends in front of the cameras.  Eileen Atkins, and especially Joan Plowright, seem to wonder what is going on, but follow their cronies' lead.

They discuss genuinely insightful topics, like stage fright, the evolution of naturalism in acting, and how intimidating of a role Cleopatra is for an actress.  Tea With The Dames is at its height here, when the subject matter is focused and it feels like we're bearing witness to previously undiscovered conversation.  Maggie Smith recalling her time sharing the stage with Laurence Olivier is particularly fascinating.

Unfortunately, and oddly, the film peeters out about a half hour in, when the Dames seem to lose track of and interest in holding court for their audience.  It is then when the filmmakers try to suggest various staging and conversation fodder, and from there, Tea With The Dames loses all momentum in being this fly-on-the-wall perspective of acting powerhouses sharing time together.  The Dames get tired, exasperated, and ultimately disinterested in finishing what they start, but what's most confusing is that the filmmakers actually leave in the uncomfortable exchanges, especially one where Maggie Smith loses her cool on a photographer trying to capture the moment.  These decisions not only undermine what I think the purpose of this documentary is, they also make me feel like The Dames regret their decision to let the cameras in, which then makes me wonder why I am watching the film in the first place.

Tea With The Dames is initially charming, and occasionally insightful, but the deliberate aimlessness of the narrative, coupled with its stars' apathy to the proceedings, results in an inconsequential film that did not need to be made.  Even fervent fans of the Dames will have trouble finding something to like enough here to justify the time spent.

Tea With the Dames is now playing at the Ritz Bourse.


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