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In the tumultuous, horrible year that has been 2020, people find themselves ever grasping for any sense of normalcy – some suggestion that while there are a lot of terrible things happening on the surface level of everyday life, that at the heart of things there is a degree of order still being maintained in the universe. We take it where we can get it, and in the particular case being discussed here the provider is Meryl Streep. While the acclaimed actor isn’t what you would call overwhelmingly prolific, you have to go back to 2003 to find a time when she wasn’t featured in at least one buzzed-about film released in the second half of the year.
Thankfully, that’s not a streak that’s being broken in 2020 even when theaters across the country are shut down, and the first to arrive this season is Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, which is a fascinating addition to Streep’s legacy both because of the tremendous performance she delivers, and also because of the film’s wonderful overall quality.
The movie is Soderbergh’s fifth since his short-lived retirement, and true to form it has a wholly different style and tone than Logan Lucky, Unsane, High Flying Bird, and The Laundromat; but it also features a great deal of what the director does best, presenting a blend of comedy and drama, capturing excellent turns from awesome actors, and stealthily implanting a meaningful and genuine message. It doesn’t quite rank among his best (admittedly a high bar to clear), but it makes an impressive impact from a contained narrative.
Though it’s an ensemble story, Let Them All Talk has Meryl Streep’s Alice at the center of it all. She is an acclaimed author who has garnered a reputation as a diva, and with her next manuscript imminently due to her publisher, her new agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), becomes desperate for details. There has been some suggestion that Alice is developing a long-awaited sequel to “You Always/You Never” (her most popular book and a novel she despises), but Karen struggles to get any kind of confirmation.
Hoping to coax the writer into revealing more information about what she’s working on, the young agent arranges the opportunity for Alice to appear in person to receive a prestigious literary award in England – a situation made complicated by the fact that Alice doesn’t fly. As an alternative, Karen suggests booking a crossing of the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, which is agreed upon so long as she can bring some guests.
This group includes her two oldest friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Diane Wiest), and her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges) – who comes along to be his aunt’s assistant, and because of his curiosity about the long-lasting relationship between the three women. What unfortunately comes to light during the trip, however, is that Roberta resents Alice for using her as the basis for the protagonist in “You Always/You Never,” and, unbeknownst to Alice, Karen boards the ship with the party in order to spy on her client’s progress.
Let Them All Talk’s sharp script keeps you engaged with its sharp story and compelling characters.
With the majority of the film set on the Queen Mary 2, keeping all of the characters in close quarters, Let Them All Talk has the energy of a stage play, and the slow boil that comes as an extension. The action is limited, putting all of the focus on emphasis on the dynamics between the cast, and Deborah Eisenberg’s script finds a fantastic level of escalation as subtext in dialogue slowly becomes text. There’s a classic super ego-ego-id triad in the relationships between Alice, Susan, and Roberta, and it’s captivating to watch the tension grow between Alice and Roberta while Susan does her best to moderate from the middle (Admittedly this results in Diane Wiest getting the short stick comparatively in terms of material, but it’s still a key role).
The narrative recognizes that when all of the characters are trapped together, there is either meaningful confrontation, or apparent avoidance, and the movie heightens the atmosphere with both.
Meryl Streep is masterful, and Candice Bergen is an amazing secret weapon.
The film is rich with talented performers, and there is no weak link in the chain, but Meryl Steep and Candice Bergen are most definitely provided the richest material, and what they do with it is fascinating and awesome – if not especially because there is the bonus of the film’s shocking third act providing everything with a new color in retrospect. The performers work with both big splashes of character and delivered subtleties, and the complexities allow for both real drama and surprising laughs.
One of the many charms of Meryl Streep is her ability to be captivating regardless of her demonstrated demeanor, and Let Them All Talk’s Alice serves her skills perfectly. Being an acclaimed author, Alice is meant to have a powerful atmosphere surrounding her (which Streep can do in her sleep), but what’s special is the occasionally visible vulnerability. What she and Roberta want during their time aboard the ship isn’t all that different, and her guilt just slightly peeks out whenever “You Always/You Never” is brought up. It’s a quiet pain brought to life beautifully.
Candice Bergen’s Roberta is the opposite, a woman scorned and stuck working at a lingerie store to make ends meet, and it’s her brashness that makes her commanding. While building up the nerve to confront Alice about what she believes she is due, she makes quite a show of trying to avoid one-on-one time (avoiding a catch-up conversation that could be used to fuel the sequel’s story), and instead uses the time to go full man-eater hunting for a potential new husband. She provides the majority of the film’s funniest moments, but also some of its hardest-hitting dramatic moments.
It’s funny, dramatic, and poignant in equal measure.
As a film that can be sold as an intimate dramedy that reteams Meryl Streep with Steven Soderbergh, Let Them All Talk delivers on expectations with superb filmmaking and performances. It’s the exact dose of Streep that we need at the moment, and a great addition to the prestige movie season.