Meryl Streep, Candice Bergman and Dianne Wiest star in Let Them All Talk and even before it’s started the names alone seem to suggest two possible outcomes.
It’s either going to be an American version of one of those British Dame Dramas, in which various theatrical Maggies or Judis are arranged fragrantly and tastefully, with the odd “fuck” thrown in to show the noble ladies are still down to earth.
Or it’s going to be a female version of one of those Four Old Dudes Go to Vegas comedies, in which the once hip gracefully accept they’re now in the hip-replacement demographic, with the odd “fuck” thrown, possibly of the physical sort, just to show the guys have still got some sort of it.
Streep plays the grand dame writer Alice Hughes, heading across the ocean on a liner even grander than herself, the Queen Mary 2, a modern Cunard ship of the old school, accompanied by two old friends from university days, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan).
It’s not quite as easy as that though. The crossing is paid for by the publisher, hoping that Alice’s current book is going to be a sequel to a monster seller, though Alice is keeping her cards very close to her chest on that front and these days rather favours difficult, challenging work, which doesn’t sell. Karen is on board entirely unbeknown to Alice, more as a spy than an agent, especially once she starts connecting with nephew Tyler on the downlow, who can’t believe his luck, him being a bit dweebie and all. And the friends – who in fact have barely seen each other in decades – aren’t entirely sure why they’ve been invited, especially Roberta, who has an ancient beef with Alice.
Add to that a mystery man who is regularly glimpsed leaving Alice’s suite in the morning and the presence of another author on board, a massively popular Robert Ludlum type (Dan Algrant), and the bones of a farce start to appear, with aspects of both the British Dame Drama and the Four Old Dudes comedy.
Note to self: if you ever for some reason are invited to take a trip on an ocean-going liner, please buy some new clothes before you go. There is opulence and quite a lot of formality on display here. Director Steven Soderbergh shot the bulk of the film on board the actual Queen Mary 2, some guerrilla style, some carefully staged, the paying passengers acting as extras and adding ocean-going authenticity.
A jaunty thriller, Agatha Christie meets Woody Allen in his Manhattan Murder Mystery years, is the result, with most of the characters portrayed as play-acting a version of themselves while pursuing their own hidden agenda, particularly Bergen’s Roberta and Chan’s Karen, though everyone is at it to some extent, except for Algrant’s Kelvin Kranz, the writer of whodunit mysteries really the only straight shooter on board.
The needle between Roberta and Alice – when is that iceberg going to be struck? – is enough to keep the whole thing afloat while we watch exquisite technicians at work. Not just the actors but also Soderbergh, who gives everything that high Soderbergh sheen, Ocean’s 11 style, on an actual ocean, with the chill-lounge soundtrack adding plump lusciousness. The camerawork and editing (both also Soderbergh, using pseudonyms) – little drop-in sequences of life on board a vast liner – also open up what could just as easily have been staged in a couple of rooms, and would translate fairly easily to the theatre.
Wiest comes into her own more as things go on but is mostly there as a sounding board for Bergen’s bitter Roberta, and as a buffer between the two other women, Bergen unfazed by Streep as a character and as an actor. Lovely to watch, particularly as everyone is improvising their lines as they go. Chan and Hedges must have been sweating bullets against this formidable threesome, but they’re both excellent in tricky roles that demand finesse and downstage playing.
It’s an examination of friendship, blah blah, in the way that all artistic product has to be something deeper than it appears on the surface. But in fact the joy of Let Them All Talk isn’t to be found in any “deep” meaning at all. That’s all left in the realm of the speculative.
In the same way that a Swiss watch, or an ocean-going liner is entirely unnecessary, there is no real need for this film to exist, though it is at the same time a stately example of precision craftsmanship of the highest order.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021