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Movie Review: Movie Stars, Mortality and More Fuel a Rewarding 'Tea With the Dames'

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If there's anything more annoying than getting old, it's getting junk mail from AARP telling you how jolly it'll be once you join. The young among you, on whom youth will always be wasted, may not know the organization or the benefits of membership. Among them: a discount at Denny's, budgeting tips from Suze Orman, a free pill identifier tool ("Avoid a medication mix-up!") and a long-term-care cost calculator. Shoot me now.

So, imagine my surprise when I recently came upon a quote from AARP's critic on Rotten Tomatoes. AARP? That's like the American Automobile Association reviewing films. But there it was — "AARP Movies for Grownups." Surprise, four stars for The Old Man & the Gun, The Wife and, yup, Tea With the Dames. The more wrinkles, the more stars, I figured.

Well, they were off by a mile on The Wife but right about Tea With the Dames. This is a remarkable, moving, one-of-a-kind picture, though for reasons unrelated to those suggested by AARP. Scan a review from any outlet, and you're certain to get the impression that Roger Michell (Venus) has made a documentary about four living legends filled with lots of dishing and laughs over flutes of Champagne.

Yes, Judi Dench (83), Eileen Atkins (84), Maggie Smith (83) and Joan Plowright (88) are acting royalty and members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, so actual Dames. And, yes, Champagne is poured. Yes, the four are longtime intimates. It's also true that they reminisce about the old days, but here's the thing. When they look back, it's not with cheery nostalgia but with a mixture of sadness, disbelief, even anger.

Filmed at the country estate that Plowright shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier, the picture begins breezily enough. The icons are seated outside at a table, where they're descended upon by photographers and makeup people. They catch up a bit, mostly about maladies — Plowright has lost her vision, and Dench's is going fast. This being England, the rain comes. The fab four get themselves inside, and that's when things get deep.

Michell interweaves career-spanning footage of the actresses' work with the banter among the friends. Over 84 minutes, three themes emerge. First, Olivier was a force of nature and affected all their lives, for better and worse. Smith diplomatically characterizes their relationship as "tricky." He was also someone who'd almost certainly run into #MeToo trouble today.

Second, these are golden girls who've gone wild and would again in a heartbeat. As the archival material makes clear, these women, known by most for work in Harry Potter films, "Downton Abbey" and "The Crown," were extraordinary beauties who spent decades in the fast lane. "I think we swung a bit early," remarks Dench. "We behaved pretty badly," says Atkins with a smile. "I don't think we needed the '60s." Zero regrets — to the contrary.

That brings us to theme No. 3: age, loss, mortality. "It's too late," Smith says, when the subject of romance arises. Then the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" begins to play, and the scene shifts to a montage of long-ago moments: the four marching against the war, accepting awards and living the swinging London life. They were incredible actors even then. And sexy as hell. It's clear by the film's close that they're thinking the same thing.

"Our little life is rounded with a sleep," Dench says, wrapping the shoot with a line from The Tempest. Sex, drugs and Shakespeare. Not something you see every day.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tea With the Dames"

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Related Film

Tea With the Dames

Director: Roger Michell

Cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright

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