Wednesday, 6 June 2018

On demand: "Nothing Like A Dame"

Nothing Like A Dame is documentary as coffee morning, with all the cordiality and conviviality that implies. A year or so back, the thoughtful filmmaker Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) had the bright idea of asking to sit in on one of the occasional get-togethers Britain's pre-eminent thespian dames - Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins - have deep in the Sussex countryside, from where "they put the world to rights", as an opening title card frames it. Although there is a poignancy about seeing Plowright, now almost totally sightless, being guided to and from the patio - there are inevitable rain delays, forcing the ladies to come inside from the garden in which they first assemble - and indeed about Smith's mid-filming request for a nap, the film's subjects are survivors who've come more or less intact through fifty years of showbusiness, and have the tales to prove it. 

Their conversation roams far and wide, as conversations between old friends tend to do: the ups and downs of a life in the spotlight, the ebbs and flows of their own careers, the vagaries of ageing, a sidebar on Kim Philby, for some reason, and some illuminating discussion of key roles from the repertoire. Atkins, an unconventional ingenue, says she was never asked to play Cleopatra, which she took as a personal slight; Plowright turned the part down, out of fear; Dench took it on, while wondering why on earth anyone would case a "menopausal dwarf" as this classical beauty; Smith, more of a wallflower back then than she clearly is nowadays, also accepted the part - but in a production touring the wilds of Canada, about as far from the National (and the apparently poisonous pen of theatre critic Caryl Brahms) as one might flee. 

Here, then, is an illustrious ensemble of players who each bring different qualities and experiences to the table, and the film's pleasures are those of affectionate, civilised dialogue: we're being let in on cherished memories, polished quotations, valued wisdom, long-rehearsed in-jokes. Smith, deferring to Plowright's late husband, describes a style of acting as "pre-Laurence", suggesting that actors might lend their names (or perhaps see themselves lending their names) to particular ages of man, like precious metals or stones. Olivier - the lynchpin of 20th century British thesping, our granite-stiff Brando equivalent - inevitably casts a large shadow. Dench recalls being dragged as a schoolgirl to see Henry V as a matter of national pride, while Smith reveals Lord Larry questioned her vowels during the shooting of 1965's Othello, which now seems a bit rich coming from a man operating under several inches of blackface.

Mostly, however, Nothing Like A Dame is as much a gal-pal movie as, say, Girls Trip or this week's Bollywood release Veere Di Wedding. What's quietly touching here is the sketch Michell's camera makes of what therapyspeak compels us to describe as a support network: a quartet of women who've nudged and nurtured each other through an industry that has been known to turn performers - and actresses in particular - against themselves and one another. The passing filmmaker has only to sit them down, give them the odd smart prompt, and watch them go - but their interactions reveal facets of these personalities that movielovers may not have seen, or which have become eclipsed by the nature of the work: Smith is so switched-on and lemon-sharp (on Plowright's revelation she is both a Lady and a Dame: "You'll just have to grapple with it, Joan") that one has cause to rue anew the doddery roles tossed her way. (This may just be one of the limitations of cinema - and more specifically, post-Downton British cinema - when set against the vast complexity and variety of life.)

There's only one disagreement in these 77 minutes, over the matter of whether a young woman should be more or less susceptible to falling in love - not even these dames, with their combined age of 342 years, have completely figured that one out. It is surrounded, however, by a considerable wealth of anecdote to be seized upon and savoured as one might hot buttered scones, including an amusingly counterhistorical account of March 1968's anti-war sit-in in Trafalgar Square, organised by Vanessa Redgrave and Tariq Ali in solidarity with similar protests breaking out across Europe: after seeing Redgrave, playwright John Osborne and eventually her own husband Julian Glover carted off by police, Atkins decided to stand up, dust herself down and walk home by herself, stopping off only to pick up crumpets for that night's tea. In the two years of waffle, flannel, bile and blather that have followed the EU referendum result, I don't believe I've heard anything more hearteningly English than that.

Nothing Like A Dame is available on iPlayer, ahead of its DVD release on June 25.  

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