The concept of Nothing Like a Dame is deceptively simple: get Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright in a room together, serve them tea and champagne, and let them loose to talk about whatever strikes their fancy for an hour and a half. What results from this more or less perfect combination is a poignant and hilarious reflection on everything from the beginning of the (British) National Theatre to the necessity of hearing aids. The film is elegant without being pretentious, and while these actresses are still larger than life by the end of their conversation, one leaves the theatre with the sense that they have nonetheless been given access to something quite personal.
Where Nothing Like a Dame shines is in highlighting the relationships between the four women involved. The depth and history of their friendship bleeds through every word in their conversations, and most of the film is punctuated with their warm, sharp wit and the kind of teasing that can only come from knowing someone for decades. In the process of sharing memories or being shown archival footage from their youth, the dames walk the viewer through what strikes them as the most important from their careers and their personal lives, weaving together stories about their children, husbands, and international fame.
It cannot be stressed enough how funny this documentary is, and that is only highlighted by how emotional some conversations become; Judi Dench can hardly talk about her late husband Michael Williams, who died in 2001, for more than a few seconds without beginning to get visibly choked up, and Maggie Smith has an uncharacteristically regretful tone when speaking about her first husband, Robert Stephens, with whom she had a difficult and emotionally draining marriage. They don’t linger on sad times for long, but these moments only deepen our understanding of the long and storied lives these women have led.
Even from a technical standpoint, Nothing Like a Dame is a quietly fascinating experience; the documentary is constructed with a meta-narrative in mind, which is an unusual approach to take for a film that mostly consists of talking heads intercut with archival footage. The film includes the offscreen prompting questions asked by the director, Roger Michell, and shows the dames being shuffled around the cottage where the documentary is being filmed (owned by Joan Plowright and her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier) in between “scenes.” There are shots of makeup being touched up, brief conversations before the interviews formally begin, and Michell leaves in natural moments of silence and introspection as the dames consider a particularly difficult question or struggle to mince down decades’ worth of experience into succinct, salient observations. Michell even lets us see footage taken near the end of their filming days, where one or more of the dames becomes visibly more tired and annoyed with the drawn-out process — Maggie Smith, in particular, has a wonderful moment where she looks up at the director and asks, quite sharply, “Haven’t they told you how old we are?”
The purpose of this film’s existence is not to convince the viewer that the dames know everything there is to know about life. This is a sharp, sometimes emotional conversation between old friends, and no one involved is trying to change the landscape of cinema or theatre. (The film, probably wisely, doesn’t even begin to touch on modern topics like the #MeToo movement.) Nor should they, in this context. The film is more akin to an afternoon tea with your slightly cranky great-grandmother (that you have an excellent, yet somewhat distant relationship with) and her three best friends — an event where you are not expected to contribute much to the conversation, but to nod and appreciate and let yourself laugh along with them. Nothing Like a Dame will not lead to any revelations, but it is a perfectly sweet and easy way to spend an hour and a half, and sometimes that kind of reprieve from the world is exactly what you need.