One lump or two? Oh bloody hell, make it four. It's Tea with the Dames, after all. And by dames, I mean the sauciest quartet on the far side of the pond: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.
I loved, loved, loved and loved this 92-minute frolic, wishing it was at least twice as long. That said, my unbridled adoration for Tea with the Dames is measured by my own crush on all four of these women, which started long before they were anointed with knighthood. Additionally, I confess that I'm absolutely mad for anything that takes a swan dive into mid-20th century British pop culture. So, to be fair, you should gauge your enthusiasm for this film based on your own taste. For example: If you like a jolly-good documentary, there's about an 80 percent chance that you'll embrace Tea with the Dames. If you're also a fan of British culture, your mirth meter should approach 90 percent. If you have a special place in your heart for theater, it will be closer to 95 percent. And if you love any combination of Atkins (Gosford Park), Plowright (Enchanted April), Dench (Shakespeare in Love) and Smith (Downton Abbey), you have one of this year's loveliest cinema experiences in store. One caveat: These four dames drop more than a few F-bombs between sips of tea, but somehow it's more poetic than profane.
The opening title of the film reads: "From time to time, four old friends, all extraordinary actresses, meet up in the English countryside to gossip, to remember and to laugh. This time they let the cameras in."
Emboldened by off-screen questions from director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), the dames wax poetic on their careers, triumphs, regrets and, in some rather teary moments, the loves of their lives. Plowright, for instance is as famous for her marriage to Laurence Olivier as for her performances on stages in London and on Broadway.
"It was momentous, even earth-shattering. It was a great privilege to share his life," says Plowright. "It was also a nightmare."
The other three dames also knew Olivier all too well, at least professionally, co-starring with him on the stage of the National Theatre in London.
"I think I was more nervous of him than the critics," says Smith. Seconds later, viewers see a film clip of 1965's Othello, in which Olivier slaps Smith in the face, with vigor. "He nearly knocked me out," says the typically unflappable Smith. "But I must say, it was the only time I truly saw stars at the National Theatre."
Indeed, the most delicious "finger sandwiches" of Tea with the Dames are the photos and film clips that remind viewers how jaw-dropping the four dames were more than a half-century ago (I still think they are). That said, the ladies are self-deprecating.
"We were not in the first rank of world beauties," says Plowright.
Au-contraire. Then, now and always, they're all heartbreakers.
Near the film's end, when asked what advice she might offer her younger self, Dench takes a moment to look out on the English countryside, and with tears beginning to well in her eyes, says, "I would try not to be susceptible to falling in love." She takes a sip of champagne, which by then has replaced the tea, and continues, "Oh, well. Whatever. It's too late now."
Plowright says, "It's never too late to fall in love."