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A famous author (Meryl Streep as Alice) goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

HBO / Crave

  • Let Them All Talk
  • Directed by Steven Soderbergh
  • Written by Deborah Eisenberg
  • Starring Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen
  • Classification R; 114 minutes

rating

3.5 out of 4 stars

How much would it take for you to hop on a cruise ship right now? Ten million dollars and your own personal hazmat suit? I can’t say that the prospect of an ocean liner appealed even before COVID-19 – days and days spent in a giant floating tin can with only tourist-trap ports to keep things novel. But leave it to director Steven Soderbergh, one of the most surprising filmmakers working today, to make travel’s least-enticing sector look like witty, bouncy fun with the ship-set comedy Let Them All Talk.

By this point in his remarkable career, there are three Soderberghs: the filmmaker who makes refined, almost-too-smart-for-the-room crowd-pleasers (Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11 and everyone’s favourite pandemic-year rewatch, Contagion); the idiosyncratic innovator whose experiments in form and content can enthrall (High Flying Bird) as much as they can confound (Full Frontal, The Good German, Unsane); and the guy who you meet in the middle of the two (The Girlfriend Experience, The Laundromat).

Let Them All Talk is in that last category – half star-studded affair and half cinematic dare. But to speak in the language of the three Soderberghs, it is more Haywire than Side Effects. It works more often than it doesn’t.

Story continues below advertisement

Shot almost entirely aboard the luxury ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2 as it crossed the Atlantic over the course of seven days – with 2,500 real, paying customers thrown into the mix – Let Them Talk certainly fulfills Soderbergh’s logistical-challenge fetish. (As usual, the director also serves as his own cinematographer and editor, too.) But once the conceptual conceit fades into the background, Soderbergh delivers an engaging four-pronged character study.

The journey kicks off because famed novelist Alice (Meryl Streep) is being awarded a once-in-a-lifetime literary prize in England. For reasons that only become clear at the film’s very end, she won’t fly. So instead, her overeager agent Karen (Gemma Chan) convinces her to travel by ocean liner. But Alice will only acquiesce on the condition that she can bring along three companions: her loving twentysomething nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and her somewhat estranged friends from college, the successful lawyer Susan (Dianne Wiest) and the struggling retail clerk Barbara (Candice Bergen).

Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen star alongside Meryl Streep in Let Them All Talk, which was shot almost entirely aboard the luxury ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2.

HBO / Crave

As the journey unfolds, Soderbergh unravels several somewhat improvised story threads, pushing the characters both closer together and further apart. Tyler starts to pine for Karen, Karen tries to needle Alice, Alice tries to reconcile with Barbara, Barbara tries to find sympathy with Susan, and Susan starts to charm a Dean Koontz-like author who also happens to be onboard. The film’s many tiny dramas add up to a thoughtful, though sometimes shaggy, study of hopes and regrets, aspirations and reality. It is not groundbreaking, but it is funny and sad and completely relatable.

Every performer is at the top of their game, too. While Streep headlines and is afforded the most delicious lines, and Hedges and Chan radiate serious fluttering charm, it is Bergen who delivers something close to a magic act here. Barbara is desperate, fuelled by spite and hungry for reparation for Alice’s presumed misdeeds. Bergen makes her sour anger feel achingly real.

In between, Soderbergh wryly captures the everyday hum of life on an ocean liner, interspersing shots of the crew working away behind the scenes. He probably has enough leftover footage to make his own fly-on-the-wall documentary. I’ll buy one ticket for that passage, too.

Let Them All Talk is available to stream on Crave starting Dec. 10

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