Take four national treasures. Decant them into a country house and allow to ferment for a couple of days. Throw in four glasses of champagne, then sit back and watch what happens. This is pretty much the recipe for Roger Michell’s charming documentary, Nothing Like a Dame, and, given how unpromising it sounds, it’s amazing how entertaining the results are.
The dames in question are, of course, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, old friends of long standing, and this is a regular get-together they’ve kept going over the years, meeting up at the country home that Dame Joan shared with her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier.
What the film offers us is a series of anecdotes – many of them laugh-out-loud-funny – and a chance to look back at four astonishing careers, with vintage clips of their first forays into theatre and film. Totally unscripted and extremely relaxed, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug, fully engaging while it’s happening but not particularly memorable when the credits have rolled. Dame Maggie arguably gets the majority of the best lines, sporting a sarcastic streak that makes the most throwaway remark an absolute killer, while Dame Judi spends much of the film helpless with laughter as she and her friends discuss some of the experiences they shared in those early days. What this is, more than anything else, is a film about ageing and the effects of it. Seeing footage of them, so young, so vital, so filled with enthusiasm for their chosen careers is simultaneously enervating and also vaguely melancholic.
There isn’t much to talk about here in terms of a review, but lovers of theatre and admirers of these four women in particular will find plenty to enjoy. Roger Michell, as he openly admits in the little feature that accompanies the main film, doesn’t so much direct as simply point the camera and allow it to run. This certainly won’t be for everyone, but lovers of theatre – and of the work of the four dames – are in for a treat.