Several times a year four of the most distinguished living actresses in England (or anywhere else) like to get together at the country home owned by one of them and hang out. The film director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) had the excellent sense to accompany them at one such session with camera and crew. Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright (the homeowner) offered no objection. They’re performers, after all, and what an opportunity for performance this is. Each of these dames of the realm gets to play the choicest of roles: herself.
Now 83, Dench is working as hard as ever, with 13 film and television credits in the last three years. Does any actress anywhere have a steelier mien? And, oh, that voice: It’s fine burgundy cut with electroshock. We learn that she initially turned down the chance of being the first female M, in the 007 movies. Then her husband stepped in. “I’ve longed to live with a Bond woman!”
Now 88, Plowright is blind and even harder of hearing than the other three are. But she retains the bright, slightly pixie-ish expression she had in “The Entertainer” (1960), playing the daughter of Laurence Olivier, her future husband. We learn that Plowright’s mother was puzzled by her daughter’s desire to act. “You’re no oil painting, my dear.”
Now 84, Atkins is likely the least known to US audiences. She was Queen Mary on “The Crown,” and to see the sibling rivalry between her and Helen Mirren in “Gosford Park” (2001) is to know just how cold ice can be. Michell intersperses the gabfests with film clips and period photos. From one of the latter, we learn just what a stone fox the young Atkins was.
This would seem borne out by the following exchange, about pre-Swinging Sixties London. “Perhaps we swung a bit early,” Dench wonders. Atkins, at once sheepish and proud, has no doubts on that score. “We behaved pretty badly, Judi, you and I did. I don’t think we needed the ’60s.”
Now 83, Smith is first among equals, star-wise. That curl in the voice, those heavy-lidded eyes: Professor Minerva McGonagall isn’t half as wizardly as the actress who plays her in the Harry Potter movies. Smith’s comic timing might best be described as Borscht Belt consomme. When Atkins confesses she didn’t have the courage to play the lead in “Antony and Cleopatra,” Smith nods sympathetically. “Neither did I.” Slightest of pauses. “That’s why I played it in Canada.”
Dench’s own reservations about the role, when Peter Hall wanted to cast her, were about appropriateness, not nerve. “Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play this part?”
Of course there’s nerve and then there’s nerve. “On the way to the theater,” Atkins says, “I always think: Would I like to be run over in a massive car accident? And I only just about come out on the side of ‘No.’ ”
Dench scowls that Denchian scowl. “I know occasions when it could have turned to yes.”
There’s lots more where that comes from: smart, funny, knowing, alternately acidulous and loving, at once over the top yet just right. There’s also a deep humanity: the love these women have for each other, the joy of craft, an awareness of the burdens of age, an unwillingness to give in to them.
What may be the most remarkable moment in this remarkably delightful movie has nothing to do with acting and getting off zingers. Smith recalls long-ago visits to the Plowright/Olivier house, when her children were young, as were theirs. “I suppose,” she says, “that’s what it was all about in those days, the children: very small people running around.” The look on her face encompasses sadness, fondness, memory. She’s as far away as the past — and as close. It’s a glimpse of a very great actress reduced (or enlarged) to being just like those watching her: a human being. That’s the most challenging role of all.
TEA WITH THE DAMES
Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 83 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: the occasionally hilariously deployed F-bomb).