“The film’s breezy setup is usually more than enough to support the deeper meditations at its core.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s truly something to behold when Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk is able to perfectly marry its impromptu style with its character-driven drama – when its clipped, collage-style editing meets the enchantingly devised and carefully performed interactions of its characters, to great effect. As he so frequently does, Soderbergh has set a particular logistic challenge in the execution of this film, which is set in and shot on a seven-day transatlantic cruise, and features a story by Deborah Eisenberg with a lot of improvised dialogue from its storied cast. Meryl Streep stars as Alice, an acclaimed author who is struggling to live up to the success of the novel that she won a Pulitzer for some twenty years ago. Her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), has arranged for her to travel by cruise ship to accept a prize in the United Kingdom – she is in middling health which would be worsened by air travel – and Alice decides to bring along her earnest nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), as well as Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Weist), two longtime friends who she has fallen out of touch with in recent years. On the voyage, Alice tries to work on her much-delayed next book, while trying to reconnect with Roberta and Susan amid the highs and lows of their pasts together; simultaneously, Karen has also secretly booked a ticket aboard the ship, and tries to pry Tyler for any intel about his aunt’s work-in-progress.
Let Them All Talk juggles these various threads, which fade in and out of prominence as Soderbergh cuts between the characters in different locations on the ship. The setting – vast, yet isolated – provides a perfect locale. Therein, the film ruminates on the struggles that the characters have to communicate about both their present concerns and the wider fixtures of their lives. Conversations, as in life, can be deceptively light. Between Alice, Roberta, and Susan, discussions of literature become as much a stand-in for the differences between them as much as anything else – what they read, why they read it, and what purpose they feel art serves in their lives – and it also plays into the sharply perceptive and economical use of their interactions, where decades of history really do seem to exist. Some things are left unsaid because they don’t need to be made more obvious than they are, but those feel distinct from the things left unsaid because nobody wants to say them. Streep, Bergen, and Weist execute this brilliantly (and special notice should be given to Bergen in particular, whose character has the thorniest history with Alice, and who tries, all throughout the film, to reconcile it with varying degrees of success). But we mustn’t forget about Chan and Hedges, who take what could have been a relatively minor subplot in the grand scheme of the plot and elevate it to a story that begins as a mini-spy caper and gradually becomes something else entirely.
The key mechanism at play – through all of this – is a tight balancing act, where one never lets on too much, at once, about where this should all go or what it should all mean. It’s about the characters, the ambience, and what organically comes through as a result. The film is able to work within these parameters for a good chunk of its runtime, but it struggles to construct an ending that’s as effortlessly potent as the stray moments or collective buildup that it’s been led in with. Perhaps the components are a touch too discordant to fully pay off in the end. However, the talented artists in front of and behind the camera don’t let the movie ever slip too far from their grasp. Even individual misgivings about the ending aside, this is still a finely-tuned and agile accomplishment. A sturdy emotional and structural core is present in everything, from the performances to Soderbergh’s individual aesthetic choices, as he frames land-based interiors in hushed light, and the gauzy interiors of the ship in smeared, bright palettes, as if to emphasize the liminal qualities of the setting. An engaging and entertaining spectacle, Let Them All Talk delivers on the surface pleasures of seeing these actors get together and play against each other, but the film’s breezy setup is usually more than enough to support the deeper meditations at its core.