Nothing Like a Dame
Directed by Roger Michell
Starring: Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith
Classification: PG; 84 minutes
On a soft, cloudy afternoon in Sussex, I sat down with four Great Dames: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith. When it started to rain, we moved from the garden into the cottage Plowright once shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier, and I listened as the four women talked about their work, their friendship, and the triumphs and tribulations age tends to bring.
Not that they spoke directly to me; I was on the other side of the screen. But therein lies the beauty of Nothing Like a Dame: thanks to director Roger Michell, we’re offered the precious illusion that we’re close enough with four pillars of English theatre that they’re chatting to us about their memories and feelings; that we get to see them as people and as friends. That if we asked politely, we’d also be poured a glass of lemon water or champagne – or at least be privy to one of Smith’s one-liners.
Of course, a documentary that hinges solely on the premise of four friends swapping stories would fall flat if the subjects weren’t so iconic, or charming. Nor would it be so compelling to watch if Atkins, Dench, Plowright, or Smith seemed desperate for us to like them – or even like they cared about being filmed at all. Instead, the four play only themselves; women who for decades have navigated an industry that’s notoriously cruel and temperamental – women who, despite said decades of experience and damehood and award wins and nominations are still spoken down to by young men with a knack for ageism. Women who still grapple with nerves and fear and diminishing eyesight. Women who are as witty and talented as they are imperfect.
And you have to remember that if you want to do justice to the legacy of people whose body of work exceeds the number of years many of us have been living. While these women performed at theatres as wonderful as Britain’s National Theatre, it can’t be forgotten how tainted it is by racism and cultural appropriation. We’re reminded of that as we see images of actors in blackface and the women recalling being outfitted in the costumes of Chinese opium users, or appearing with bindis during their early days onstage. Which, while tempting to tuck under the blanket of privilege, is important to note when charting the lives of those who helped shaped the theatre world as we know it. These things happened, and our faves played a role in perpetuating them. To forget those transgressions wouldn’t make for an accurate documentary – it would make for a fan page.
Which, admittedly, is also often what Nothing Like a Dame can seem like. Michell and his team clearly revere their subjects, and between the rare clips of their early days in theatre and the footage of the four losing it over private jokes instead of answering questions, it’s obvious that the documentary is a labour of love.
But let’s face it: that’s why any of us are watching it. To be invited for an afternoon of conversation isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But it is for those of us whose idea of a solid afternoon is sitting in an English garden sipping and spilling tea with four women who’ve endured their fair share of bad directors, hats, and wigs.
The thing is, away from those hats and wigs, Nothing Like a Dame presents us versions of these actors we’ve never seen performed before: utterly themselves. Funny, sage, jaded, human, flawed. And frankly, that’s what makes these dames even greater.
Nothing Like a Dame opens Nov. 30
Special to The Globe and Mail