‘Tea with the Dames’ is a delightful conversation

To act, on stage and screen, can be a lifetime pursuit of tempting truth.

And while Molly Ivins, the subject of “Raising Hell,” did not act in a play or movie, she certainly created a character that she played to the hilt.

Like the best of performers, this remarkable writer seemed to acknowledge, in her words, what gifts may be missing, and what gives should be recognized, to create a life filled with as much artistic friction as actors confront who they are and who they want to be.

For anyone who has seen four legendary actors on stage — the Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins — “Tea With the Dames” offers the rare chance to sit back with awe at how they masterfully create people with words and expressions. Yes, it’s all an illusion, as these actors freely admit. Still it’s illusion born out of self-awareness, commitment to craft, and a passion for making make believe look, sound and feel true.

Rarely do we get to hear these actors talk about themselves beyond the predictable interviews that accompany movie or television promotions. But director Roger Michell, best known for “Notting Hill,” shifts from narrative to documentary by placing his cameras inside a conversation between these four theatrical legends. The ladies, who apparently get together now and then to catch up, with tea but without the cameras, don’t let the presence of a crew stifle their candor. Instead they seem to relish the chance to simply be themselves without having to remember any lines.

That these ladies have known each other for years is no surprise, nor are the professional intersections they share. Michell’s camera lets us inside the personal side to their connections, how they have “been there” for each other through the ups and downs of careers and relationships. Plowright, who was married to Laurence Olivier, recalls, with Smith, the common experiences of working with such a theatrical legend, while Dench, who continues to work a great deal, gets teased by the others for taking all the good parts. Smith, who won three Emmys for her work in “Downton Abbey,” claims never to have watched the series while Atkins admits that her nerves can be so intense when she works on stage that, while traveling to the theater, she often hopes to get hit by a car.

Such admissions make the film great fun as if we get to eavesdrop on a party to which we couldn’t snag an invitation. Never do the ladies appear to perform; they simply are themselves, women who have fought many years to do quality work, no matter the disappointments they face or the odds they overcome. Enriched by delectable clips from past performances, Michell lets us see the actors in their prime as he studies the actors reflecting on their journeys. Without bitterness or regret, the ladies recognize their successes, smile at their failures, and happily look forward, knowing that fewer opportunities to work may come their way.

If there is a shortcoming to the film it’s the short running time. Michell spent a day with these ladies and we get a bit over 90 minutes. Somehow it doesn’t feel fair, after waiting so long to get to know them, to leave the theater wanting so much more. Because we want to know more about how they continue to tempt truth.

“Tea With the Dames” (originally titled “Nothing Like a Dame” in the UK) runs 1 hour, 34 minutes. It is not rated. The film online streaming on Prime Video.