Regrets. The characters in Steven Soderbergh’s latest film have had a few.
Writer Deborah Eisenberg’s first screenplay “Let Them All Talk” is smart and literate and a welcome cinematic character study of people behaving like human beings.
Meryl Streep dives into one of her best roles in years playing Alice, an award-winning author who is up for yet another one to be presented to her in the U.K. Alice’s refusal to fly leads her agent Karen (a charming Gemma Chan) to book her onto a cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2.
Alice agrees to the voyage on the condition that she can bring fellow travelers. Her choices are all important to the flow of the film’s drama. She chooses two old friends, Susan and Roberta, and her nephew Tyler who seems to be her purest emotional connection.
The three old friends are anything but dear—and their past is far from a sweet one.
Candace Bergen is Roberta, a woman that holds a serious grudge. She is convinced that a character in Alice’s most successful novel is based on her.
Diane Wiest is a national treasure and here she proves why. Susan knows that their trio is not as close as they want to be. While she cares for them both, there is no soulful connection. Wiest makes the most out of her dialogue and shows Susan to be the philosophical one of their group. It is through her character that the film’s tenderest moments shine through.
Lucas Hedges gives a quiet and unmannered performance as Tyler. His scenes which each of the actresses have an easy-going quality to them. Hedges seems to be the type of actor who relies on his instincts and watching him alongside Streep, Wiest, and Bergen, we see that he does not try to showboat or do things to make sure the audience notices him against these greats. Smart move.
Soderbergh shot the film during a two-week cruise aboard the famous ship and Eisenberg was there with him at every step. Their collaboration allowed improvisation between their actors and a perfect balance is found between free-form acting and the script as written.
Focusing on the intricacies of the characters, the film escapes the trappings of Hollywood reunion comedies cast with respected actresses who are given subpar material far from their better, past, roles. There is humor but no goofiness or slapstick to be had in a film like this.
Steven Soderbergh has always been a smart filmmaker who is adventurous in his choices. The director has been successful with both independent and Hollywood films. He excels in light touch character studies that give actors room to create. His screenplay for his Cannes award-winning “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” is one of the most interesting and literate ones I have ever come across, and his 2002 film “Full Frontal” is one of the most undervalued character pieces of the last three decades.
“Let Them All Talk” is a film about the need for connections both emotional and otherwise. For these characters, it becomes a longing. Susan wants to connect on soulful levels while Roberta has comeuppance on her mind.
There are sweet scenes between Tyler and Karen as they try to navigate Alice’s difficulties writing her next novel. While they walk, talk, eat, and dance all over the ship, Tyler becomes enamored with Karen but is not sure if she feels the same way. There is an ambiguity and organic unfolding to their relationship that achieves great interest.
Streep’s Alice can be insufferable to those around her. She is conceited and somewhat superficial. But in her moments with her nephew, the writer is honest and calm. Secretly she is insecure and lonely with a desire is to be fully recognized as a regular person. Tyler is the one person with whom Alice can be herself and it is in their time together where we witness Alice letting her pretentions fall. Streep finds the humanity in the character and creates a moving portrait of a woman seeking to be understood by those close to her.
Soderbergh and Eisenberg’s film is genuine. Genuine in its portrayal of human emotions and in the way it is acted and directed.
“Let Them All Talk” uses finesse and restraint to explore friendships and unrealized expectations and finds a balanced tone, something that is rare in contemporary cinema.
Engaging and revealing, this is one of the best films of last year.