Dames Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith are icons of the acting profession. All now over 80 and good friends, who have at various times worked with each other, they have rich lives and careers to look back on and a store of good tales to tell. Which is what they do here.
Director Roger Michell gathers them together in Plowright’s country home for a weekend session of laughter, reminiscence and gossip. The result is a delightfully funny and sometimes poignant look back over some sixty years of thesping and living.
The lively conversation is laced with clips and photographs of their younger selves at work, giving us a poignant reminder of the physical changes wrought by the years. But though they may have lines on their faces, those faces are still full of life and laughter. To quote from a spirited discussion they have about playing Cleopatra – Dench and Smith did, Atkins and Plowright admit they turned the role down as being too daunting – “age cannot wither”.
Where to start with the stories? Remembering their early days in “rep” where stage make-up was sticks of 5 and 9 and a crimson spot in the corner of the eyes to make them sparkle and stand out. Atkins tells a Rabelaisian tale of an actor catching his theatrical landlady in flagrante delIcto, which gets Dench’s famous full throated laugh going. They all chortle over remembering another Dame, Edith Evans, and her two sets of false teeth and Dench now remembers perfectly her lines as Cecily in “The Importance of Being Earnest” – lines which she admits she just could not remember at the time.
A touching moment is Plowright, who is now blind, asking Dench seated next to her, “How far away are you?” Talking about working with their husbands, they all agree with Plowright that Olivier was the trickiest of all. He nearly knocked Smith out when she was playing Desdemona to his Othello in the sixties– now a shocking sight to see a white actor “blacked up” for the role. He apparently remained po-faced when Smith, seeing him in the make-up, greeted him with “How now, brown cow”.
Smith is tactful about the way her first husband, Robert Stephens, could be unreliable later in his career – “he wasn’t a well man”, while the long pause before Dench tells us about the joy of playing out “A Fine Romance” with late husband Michael Williams speaks silent volumes.
They talk about the critics, who seem to assume, says Plowright, that actors all think they are “the bee’s knees” whereas in reality they are all shaking with fear inside. The petrol that fuels the performance, says Dench. “But there’s the rolling eyes from everyone and that look of “are we going to go yet again?” on a film set when you fluff”, adds Smith.
They discuss how to play Shakespeare – for the poetry or for a more natural delivery – and their diction throughout the entire film is perfect. Younger actors please note. A product of those warm up exercises learned at drama school that we hear them do before facing the camera.
They also acknowledge the challenge of getting older and their occasional lapses of memory. “Did we play that in Edinburgh?”, Dench and Smith as each other. At one point Smith challenges the on set photographer, whom she thinks has been taking too many photographs. “We’re tired”, she says. “Have they told you how old we are?” Elsewhere she is urging Dench to get hearing aids. “You need to get them, Jude. Hands up any of you who doesn’t have them.”
Do not ever though dare to patronise these dames. Witness Dench’s story, currently all over social media, about being condescended to as an older person by a young medic. “What is our name? Do we have a carer?”, he asked her. “F…off”, she retorted. “I’ve just done eight weeks in The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick.”
There is never a dull moment in the 84 minutes of this film. It’s the best party you’re likely to be invited to this year.
It ends with Dench speaking Prospero’s speech from “The Tempest”.
“Our revels now are ended……
………We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
But what revels they are.