Steven Soderbergh’s latest film may not have been shot on an iPhone, but it cut down production fuss in other ways. Over three-quarters of the screenplay was shot on the Queen Mary 2, in a crossing from New York to London, and the cast almost entirely improvised their lines, taking their cues from a rough treatment by Deborah Eisenberg, while Soderbergh relied nearly entirely on natural light and spontaneous location scouting to situate his scenes on board the ship. No surprise, then, that it’s one of the loosest, lightest, most mercurial films in his recent catalogue – centering, appropriately, on what it means to be a writer and creator.
Meryl Streep plays Alice Hughes, a famous writer who’s awarded a prestigious honour that she can only accept in person if she travels from New York to London. Since she’s peculiarly susceptible to DVT, Alice can’t fly, so her publisher, Karen, played by Gemma Chan, suggests that she take a two week cruise, all expenses paid. Alice only accepts on the condition that she can bring along her nephew Tyler, played by Lucas Hedges, and her two oldest friends, Roberta, played by Candice Bergen, and Susan, played by Dianne Wiest. Roberta and Susan aren’t given surnames, which seems apt, since their motivations for attending are as cryptic as Alice’s motivations for inviting them. The three women haven’t gathered together for thirty years, and have been estranged ever since Alice drew on Roberta’s life for her breakout novel.
At least, that’s the way Roberta sees it – Alice doesn’t agree that she exploited her friend any more than the rest of her life. Let Them All Talk thus slots into a particular subgenre of film that mediates female friendship through literary accomplishment. These literary melodramas tend to mine both highbrow and lowbrow literature to evoke the paucity of options for representing female attachment over time. The clearest antecedent here is Rich and Famous, where Candice Bergen also plays the jilted friend of a successful highbrow novelist who gets her own back by writing a trashy, bestselling roman a clef about their lives. Let Them All Talk ends with Roberta making a similar deal, while Susan hitches her star to a popular crime writer, who the three women encounter while they’re making the journey across the Atlantic.
Yet whereas Rich and Famous suggests that female friendship can only find an authentic voice in lowbrow literature, Let Them All Talk is a bit more ambivalent about what it means to depict older women in communion and conversation. The first utterance of the film is Alice’s reflection that “there must be a better way to describe things,” and that restless searching for a new vocabulary percolates throughout the film, not least because Soderbergh has also been yearning for a new cinematic lexicon ever since he returned from his semi-retirement.
And this is easily one of the most beautiful outings in Soderbergh’s most recent body of work. Every interior scene is suffused with oversaturated warmth – a lighting scheme that throws faces into stark relief (especially older faces) only to bathe, nourish and nurture them, like the cinematic equivalent of a facial scrub. There’s room for a much wider range of facial expressions here than we normally see from older women in film – and the three leads make the most of it, opting for abrupt pivots in tone and expression that in their own quiet way constitute some of their greatest work. They’re always on the verge of Hollywood’s two options for “resting older women face” – grandmotherly or senile – but never quite get there. They’re also permitted to be exhausted in their body language without ever being debilitated.
In other words, Let Them All Talk is a great performance of aging, leaving space for its three leads to be dazed, disoriented or frustrated, while letting the sparks fly when they come together. Soderbergh may be shooting using digital technology, but he also avoids easy comparisons between these women and older media too. While Tyler, Alice’s nephew, cements his connection with Roberta and Susan through technology, it’s never by simply helping them in a clichéd way. In one scene, Roberta asks him to help stalk a bachelor she’s spotted on board; in another, Susan deflects his questions about her childhood by observing that not that much has changed with iPhones: “human communication is basically the same.”
Since it never takes cheap shots, or contrasts this digital style with its elderly subjects in a trite way, Let Them All Talk takes place in a surreal distended place between past and present. So clean and crisp are Soderbergh’s compositions that the ship never quite seems to be moving, especially since the endless ocean doesn’t leave much scope to measure how fast we’re cruising. Instead, we have movement without movement, much as the women drift, like so many flaneuses, around the ship, wandering in and out of foggy days as memory seeps into reality. All these trajectories centre around the ship’s pool, which takes the coordinates of the film, the sightlines that separate it from the ocean, and then dissolves them again, immersing us in an ambient flux that never seems quite solid or liquid, imaginary or concrete.
These scenes don’t just bleed back into the past, but forward into the future as well. Let Them All Talk was one of the very last films shot before COVID-19, but it already seems to have anticipated the new structures of feeling that were right around the corner. Everyone already appears to be socially distanced, thanks to Soderbergh’s wide, sparse compositions, which place all the characters at a slight remove from one another. In one scene, Tyler accompanies Karen to the ship’s observatory and, while they’re gazing at the expanse of the universe, seems to hold her hands Yet it turns out to be an optical illusion, a function of Soderbergh’s densely saturated palette, as Tyler’s hand is actually resting behind Karen, on his own knee.
Moments like this imagine a space between the characters that is both infinitesimal and cosmic, as minute as a brushed hand and as immense as the universe. When Alice gives a lecture on board, she reflects on the essential miracle of writing – reaching across time and space into someone else’s consciousness. Everyone in the film is a writer in that sense, since everyone has to traverse just a little more space and time than normal to create a connection. Later on, Susan informs the woman that Elon Musk has just launched a series of satellites that look exactly like stars, meaning they’re among the last people to know that they’re gazing up at real stars from the middle of the ocean. Between the observatory and Musk’s false stars, space here appears to expand to cosmic proportions while also reducing the outside world, the sense of an exterior, to the remotest possibility, as occurred over the last year in lockdown.
Much of Let Them All Talk thus feels like a study of older women on the verge of lockdown life, sanitising gym equipment and carefully orchestrating their perambulations to minimise the number of people they encounter. The subtitle of the film is “The Fall of 2019,” which now feels particularly portentous – not just because autumn was the last season Americans could really enjoy before the gathering threat of COVID, but because 2019 itself seemed to fall, crumble and collapse into the global pandemic that took its name from this morbid year.
As a result, Let Them All Talk is most pregnant when it focuses on the normality effect of long-haul cruising – the way that the rhythms and infrastructure of the ship all work together to produce a quotidian normalcy, an everyday mise-en-scene. Of course, every space on the ship is exotic, so it’s really more an exoticised sense of the normal, or a quotidian exoticism, that defines this particular cruise experience. That need to contrive normalcy has become a feature of the pandemic, when so many people have had to act as if their homes and bedrooms are grounded in the same world they always were. But it’s also a feature of the digital media sphere that fascinates Soderbergh, in which the regular categories of space and time that once drove analog culture have to be increasingly contrived out of a digital ether.
That contrivance of normality out of a digital media sphere (or out of a phenomenon, like a pandemic, which travels even faster than digital transmissions, and has traditionally been framed as digitally-adjacent by Hollywood) is the driving stylistic force behind Let Them All Talk. Time and again, Soderbergh alternates between the mechanics of the ship and the brightness of the sea, on the one hand, and the warm interiors they produce on the other. In one of the key scenes of the film, Alice’s perambulations are abruptly halted when she arrives at the nexus between passenger and crew quarters – the threshold between the two colour schemes in the film, one of which is cool and crisp, the other oversaturated and enveloping.
This is also a threshold between the fictional world of the three female characters, and the broader depiction of the ship, which comes closer to docudrama, especially whenever we move below deck, or approach the crew’s quarters. Positioned at that threshold, Alice, Roberta and Susan (and Streep, Bergen and Wiest) revel in a freedom of movement and expression rarely granted to women of this age in American cinema – so free, in fact, that it seems to exude a whole new conception of mobility, or collapse the separate categories of stasis and movement, in ways that correlate beautifully with Soderbergh’s own digital camera work. The result is one of the most elegant and empathetic films of his later career, as well as some of the most gloriously exhausted and sprawling work these three actresses have done.