Film Review: Let Them All Talk
Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh. US, 2020, 113 minutes.
Available with subscription on HBOMax.
While reflecting on the snooty etiquette of cruise ships in the final act of Let Them All Talk, renowned novelist Alice (Meryl Streep) offers the following observation: “They would say, don’t call it a cruise. It’s not a cruise, it’s a crossing.” The implication is that the ocean liner experience is something dignified and grand, almost spiritual, and to relegate it to the vulgar term “cruise” is to gauchely foreground its transactional nature. After all, no one needs further reminding of that when they’re already inundated with whirring slot machines, ubiquitous add-on services and upcharges, and a print-out listing nightly expenses slipped under the suite door every day.
Soderbergh, one of our premiere chroniclers of capitalism’s iniquities and bizarre imperatives, makes films in which the flow of money is impossible to ignore—and Let Them All Talk is no exception. When Alice’s publisher offers a travel package aboard Carnival’s UK-bound Queen Mary 2 so that she can accept the prestigious Footling Prize, ample narrative attention is paid to the economic repercussions of the deal. Alice insists on bringing along company (four additional guests, it turns out), which then produces a scene of her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) haggling with her own boss to join the trip as chaperone, a move that will allegedly imperil the company’s finances (along with, possibly, Karen’s job). During the same pre-sailing montage, we meet Roberta (Candice Bergen), one of Alice’s old college friends who’s been invited on the trip, as she’s causing a light stir at the lingerie store where she works. It’s a run of the mill workday altercation that underlines the basic protocols of retail labor and the implications of time off—the kind of in-the-weeds stuff most directors would skip over.
Let Them All Talk continues to stress economics once the action shifts to the ship, with jazzy montages documenting the Queen Mary 2’s below-the-deck staff and dialogues that draw out disparities between Alice’s accommodations and those of her guests. But Soderbergh proves equally concerned with the spiritual dimensions of this transatlantic journey: The film’s spectral digital cinematography—as usual handled by the director himself under a pseudonym—conceives of the ornate ship almost like a German expressionist fantasia, all awe-inspiring diagonals, extreme vanishing points and haloing light sources. Filming on an actual Carnival crossing amidst paying customers during a particularly overcast August 2019, Soderbergh was likely limited in what he could realistically set up for exposure balancing, and consequently the Atlantic is often rendered a blindingly white void surrounding the characters, which becomes eerily suggestive as the script begins broaching the subject of mortality.
From the start, Alice’s generation-spanning invitees—estranged friends Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta, guileless nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), and an Odyssey-reading mystery man (John Douglas Thompson) whose identity is strategically withheld until the final reel—feel scrupulously chosen in the interest of something beyond pure leisure. And that inkling is strengthened by the outing Alice has arranged in the new continent, a visit to the grave of her literary hero. Alice has come well-stocked with reading material, which she insists her friends acquaint themselves with, but they’re preoccupied with their own—On the Road for Tyler, and paperback thrillers by fellow cruise guest Kelvin Kranz (Daniel Algrant) for the aging bachelorettes—and put off by what they perceive as Alice’s pretentiousness. (Perceptions of artwork, and how those perceptions are articulated verbally, is a crucial theme throughout, accounting for numerous misunderstandings and unspoken tensions that are further accentuated by Soderbergh’s alternately clipped and languorous editing.)
Despite the ostensible fanfare of the occasion, Alice is too preoccupied with her new novel to allow herself any lounging. Let Them All Talk thus adopts a diurnal, repetitive structure, with most significant action occurring around mealtimes—the only pockets of the day that the guest of honor has carved out for her company. This doesn’t bode well for much beyond small talk, and Roberta’s long-held grudge towards Alice therefore only festers as the film wears on. It becomes apparent that Alice has invited Roberta in hopes of sewing this fissure, though neither woman seems prepared to apologize for any past indiscretions, perceived or otherwise. For his part, Tyler plays impotent spectator to this petty drama, and Soderbergh gets plenty of comedic mileage out of deer-in-the-headlights reaction shots of this naïve odd-man-out, whose own interests lie in capturing the affections of Karen—who’s also driven by motives unaligned with the rest.
Overlaid atop this dense stew of discrete narratives and incentives is a pungent melancholy that Soderbergh hasn’t captured since maybe The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Time is a fragile, ticking, irreplaceable thing not to be wasted on trivial matters, and in Let Them All Talk those who most need that lesson are too self-obsessed or emotionally constipated to heed it. Only Tyler and Susan, who in their own ways register as the daftest of the bunch initially, ultimately grasp the significance of the occasion, and find in this gaudy cruise an occasion for meaningful reflection—that is to say, they treat this “crossing” as such. Monetary concerns color all the movie’s narrative machinations, but then the story concludes on an ambiguously uplifting note that counts as something of a leap of faith for the often-cynical Soderbergh: a whiff of the sublime found in the clumsy passing of a baton from one generation to another. [★★★★]