There are few American directors I can think of that are more comfortable with big swings as much as Steven Soderbergh. Usually this works to his benefit and there are few films on his resume that have not worked as far as I’m concerned. His latest is Let Them All Talk, a comedic drama shot last fall on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship on a journey from New York to London. And there are plenty of other reasons why Let Them All Talk is a uniquely impressive endeavor.
Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) is one of the most celebrated living American authors who can’t seem to figure out where her next book is coming from. Her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) is worried the work might never get done, but informs her of an award she’s due to accept in London. She can’t fly, so Karen arranges for Alice to travel from New York to London via cruise ship, where she brings along her old friends from college, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest) and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges). During this journey, quieted traumas awaken, and old resentments are brought to the surface as these women explore what drove them apart all those years ago.
The first thing you should know about Let Them All Talk is that there’s basically no screenplay. Screenwriter Deborah Marshall wrote an extensive outline – where scenes begin, where scenes end, and an overall narrative arc for the story, and Soderbergh then put a camera down and, well, let them all talk. I think this is a truly fascinating way to make a film about writers. Having said that, this doesn’t really feel like the conversational hangout movie implied by this. This has a really accessible three-act narrative structure and while there’s joy and lightness to some of these conversations, there is a lot of building tension that comes to a head in the finale.
Meryl Streep is having a great month between this and The Prom, and these two films could not have less in common. Alice is an author who has enjoyed a lot of success, but is having trouble coming to terms with her past and grasping what’s to come. This is one of Streep’s most layered and intricate performances in years. Alice is kind of a larger-than-life figure. She’s confident in her accomplishments and maybe a little smug, and Streep gives her a specific vulnerability that gives her the humanity this character needs.
Candice Bergen, however, is reveling in every last bit of the most delicious role she’s had in years. Roberta jumps at the chance to go on this journey with her old friends, but is resentful of Alice for reasons that are explored throughout the story. And Bergen is a piercing delight to watch. Dianne Wiest is kind of the audience surrogate, who has been there through all of the bickering, and offers insight into the details of this fractured relationship. It’s such a pleasure to see these phenomenal actresses given material worthy of them, and they all run with it.
Lucas Hedges doesn’t really have a lot to do here, but he’s perhaps the only character in this story with positive motivations and no true emotional baggage to attend to. He has a pleasant chemistry with Gemma Chan’s character, who he begins to fall for during the journey.
Filmed on an actual cruise liner, Soderbergh shot this using minimal filming equipment, and a lot of this small-budget endeavor required the use of natural lighting. And yet it feels like a Soderbergh film from beginning to end in every possible way. Between the color plate and the costume design, and Thomas Newman’s delightfully jazzy score, there is everything you love aesthetically about a Soderbergh film here, but he keeps finding new and fascinating ways of telling a story, and this is one of his best in years.
Let Them All Talk is an enjoyable journey to take – Streep, Bergen and Wiest onscreen together is reason for celebration in itself – but it’s also a surprisingly profound exploration of the toll success takes on relationships, and the lasting implications of unresolved trauma. It may not be thematically groundbreaking, but it certainly leaves you with a lot to think about. Let Them All Talk is a bittersweet and impeccably acted character study that has quite a lot to say about the creative process and what an artist owes to their muses.