Skip to main content

Film Reviews Review: Nothing Like a Dame lets you sip, and spill, tea with the greats of the National Theatre

Maggie Smith, left, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, and Judi Dench, right, have let the cameras in on a friendship that goes back more than half a century.

Mark Johnson

Nothing Like a Dame

Directed by Roger Michell

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

Story continues below advertisement

Classification: PG; 84 minutes

rating

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.

Eileen Atkins and the other three acting greats discuss their careers and reminisce about their humble beginnings in the British National Theatre.

Mark Johnson

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.

Judi Dench.

Mark Johnson

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.

Story continues below advertisement

Maggie Smith.

Mark Johnson

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

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter