Let Them All Talk: Just Keep Swimming, by David Bax
Near the end of Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, Alice (Meryl Streep) comments on the fact that the trip she’s taken is not a “cruise” but a “crossing,” a one-way trip across the Atlantic from Brooklyn to Southampton. That’s semantics, though. In all the ways the label implies, the ship on which Let Them All Talk takes place and was shot is a cruise ship, from the dinners to the shows to the shuffleboard. Anyone who’s ever taken a cruise will recognize the experience right from the boarding montage with the parade of wheeled luggage rolling down the covered gangway. These days, though, cruise ships have quite a bit of baggage of their own, making the film an unintended snapshot of the recent past in a way that dovetails with its concerns about living in the present.
Alice is a respected author and has been invited to receive an award in the UK. She doesn’t fly, though, so her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), books passage for the both of them on the Queen Mary 2, a luxury liner that takes seven days to cross the ocean. Alice only agrees on the condition that she can also bring along her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), and her two best college friends, whom she hasn’t seen in over 30 years, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest).
Despite a whole ship full of people–actual passengers; the film was shot during a real crossing–these five fine actors represent nearly the entire cast. It’s enticing to watch them find various ways to pair off, Streep with Chan or Hedges with Bergen. Streep’s frustratingly yet sympathetically out of touch Alice is the nucleus but it is perhaps Wiest who, despite having the least dynamic storyline, is the most fun to watch, especially in Susan’s daily board game time with Roberta, where Susan gets in on the fun with Monopoly piece earrings and says of her fancified former friend Alice, “I wonder why she talks like that.”
As usual, Soderbergh serves as his own cinematographer and, as usual, he embraces the look of digital photography, letting the reality of current technology lead him rather than trying to corral it into an approximation of classical film. Let Them All Talk is coated in thick colors both warm and cool. The images stab and warble just like the bluesy organ on the soundtrack.
Any director so committed to making movies that exist in the here and now (or, at least, in the immediately pre-COVID-19) is going to have to contend with how to present text messages on film. Instead of going with the popular graphic subtitles, he chooses a more elegant voiceover approach; e.g. we see Chan looking at a phone but hear Hedges’ voice. It’s a simple solution to a necessary problem, especially in a world where this type of reading is the most common and the world’s most successful novelists travel in public with anonymity.
Everyone in the film is hung up on mourning an imagined past that always seems to just be ending. Tyler envies his aunt and her friends for living lives he sees as more genuine, untainted by the constant performance of social media. Alice decries a present day reading audience who prefer cheap, tawdry, predictable, digestible writing (never mind that this is what audiences have always preferred). In Let Them All Talk, everyone is too preoccupied with what they think they just missed out on to appreciate what they’re currently experiencing. It’s a fitting point of view for what feels like it could be the last cruise ship movie.