Nothing Like a Dame features wonderful archive footage, but otherwise doesn’t dig too far beneath the surface

It sounds like a winning pitch: Four celebrated English
actresses, each a Dame Commander of the Order of the British
Empire, gather to discuss their long, storied careers.
Apparently it’s something they do on a regular basis anyway;
this time, director Roger Michell and his camera were allowed
to sit in.

But after it becomes clear that Maggie Smith, Judi Dench,
Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright aren’t going to form a crime
syndicate or knock over a bank, it becomes equally clear that
they aren’t going to give up the goods on their colleagues,
friends or lovers. And Michell isn’t pushing; we can hear his
voice off-camera, lobbing the softest of questions.

Even at that, there’s some fun to be had. Dench notes at one
point that she’s never known an Anthony who didn’t complain
about his role; I thought she meant Hopkins, Quayle, etc., but
she’s actually talking about Shakespeare’s Anthony and
Cleopatra, which the women agree is a better play for the
female lead than the male.

Smith confesses she’s never watched Downton Abbey,
though she was given a box-set by the producers. Plowright gets
a dig at her friend when she recalls her American agent telling
her: “We’ll look for a nice little cameo that Judi Dench
doesn’t have her paws on yet.” And Atkins recalls overhearing a
teacher saying she wasn’t pretty enough to act, and an actor
who was advising him to respond: “No … but she’s sexy.”

The archival footage is wonderful; these women have all been
working since the ’50s, and we get to see them grow up in fast
motion, first on stage and then on screen. But it would have
been nice to have Michell give them more pointed queries than:
“What was it like working with your husbands?” Plowright was
married to Olivier, for heaven’s sake! And all we get back is
that it was “tricky.”

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