“It’s not a cruise. It’s a crossing.” If I heard this line before watching Let Them All Talk, I would’ve said, “No, girl, it’s a cruise. And I’m not getting anywhere near one of those right now.” But it turns out a movie about a bunch of people crammed together on the Queen Mary 2 to cross the Atlantic was the exact thing I needed to help me process 2020. Who would’ve guessed?
By the time Meryl Streep gets to said line, I’d already been on a cruise with her, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Gemma Chan, and Lucas Hedges for more than an hour. And honestly, I had to agree with her: This was much more than a movie about a crowded ship that, in the real world, would give me a panic attack. Despite the “Fall 2019” timestamp in the opening credits (director Steven Soderbergh really wants to make clear he did not endanger these three American treasures on a cruise this year), this movie is actually a pretty accurate and poignant reflection of friendships in 2020. It’s about what happens to relationships—how they can cross over into deeper territory, or retreat into a shallow facade—when they endure an extreme experience.
In the film, we follow Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice as she travels to England, via ship, to receive a literary prize. She invites her estranged college friends Susan (Wiest) and Roberta (Bergen) and her nephew, Tyler (Hedges) to travel with her, while her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) joins on a subtle fact-finding mission: She needs information about Alice’s new book. Soderbergh cleverly paces the story by depicting it through the paired relationships amongst the five: Alice and Tyler have their morning breakfasts in her luxurious two-floor suite, Susan and Roberta play a different board game every day, and Tyler and Karen share insight every night. Before we ever used the word “isolation” in our everyday vernacular, Soderbergh essentially inflicted it upon his characters aboard this cruiseliner. They aren’t sharing space or even much time as a group; in fact, when they are together, the distance between them is palpable. They might as well be in quarantine on their own separate ends of the boat. Before this trip, Alice, Susan, and Roberta had been apart for 30 years, and it shows.
When Candice Bergen posted photos of her two-week filming cruise with her co-stars on her masterful Instagram account last September, I shrieked. Even though I knew this was a Soderbergh movie and would likely favor dry wit over the Mamma Mia soundtrack, I had visions of these three singing “Waterloo” as the Manhattan skyline passed by in the distance.
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What I didn’t expect was a touching yet comedic depiction of my own relationships this year. Like Alice does Tyler, I’ve seen my partner as a lifeline: They are the person with whom I process the rest of my relationships, especially those that have suffered these past nine months. And like Roberta does with Susan, I rely heavily on the insight of the one close friend in my in-person COVID bubble. These two humans are the only people I have direct contact with on a regular basis. The rest of the world has fallen away.
As I watched Let Them All Talk, I had the sobering realization that, at the end of this pandemic, the friends we haven’t seen in months might not recognize the people we’ve become. Roberta says she misses Alice when she was just “Al” and seems to grieve for the old friend she’ll never get back. “Did she always talk like that? Wonder why she talks like that,” Susan asks Roberta as they try to square the fun, carefree person they knew with the conceited, pompous “author” traveling with them. “You know, it’s like polishing the vase when the house is falling down,” Alice says to Tyler, referring directly to the book draft she’s scrapped and, indirectly, her crumpled friendships. There’s no saving what time has done.
This year, we’ve received very few clear answers. Even the world’s smartest scientists stumbled around without direction as we locked ourselves indoors and stayed away from our friends. Some of our friendships, especially the ones that have fallen off as we battle depression, fear, and anxiety, could be over once we’re all out in the world again. Others will be stronger and more precious than we ever could have hoped.
This might be alarming to read, but we’re all on one long, kooky cruise right now. And we’ll just have to see how things turn out once we officially cross to the safe side.
Watch Let Them All Talk on HBO Max
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