'All of Us Strangers' — Andrew Haigh's transformational travel to the past

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday January 2, 2024
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Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in 'All of Us Strangers' (Searchlight Pictures)
Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in 'All of Us Strangers' (Searchlight Pictures)

The new film from British auteur Andrew Haigh ("Weekend," "45 Years," "Looking"), "All of Us Strangers" (Searchlight Pictures), is not only timely, but a cause for celebration, because it examines the main character's queer identity in relation to his parents.

This cinematic achievement is even more remarkable because the movie deals with such dour topics as grief, loneliness, alienation, regret, abandonment, and emotional pain yet ultimately is heart-mending and healing by affirming the power of love.

Adam (Andrew Scott, the hot priest in "Fleabag" and Moriarity in "Sherlock Holmes") is a lonely, depressed, and creatively stunted screenwriter supposedly working on a new script, but is living and loafing in a near empty high-rise tower complex in London.

He's interrupted one night by a younger drunken resident, Harry (Paul Mescal, "Afternoon Sun," "Normal People") carrying a Japanese whiskey bottle (a sly allusion to the 1987 Japanese novel "Strangers" by Taichi Yamada, on which the film is based). He propositions Adam, "If not a drink, for whatever else you might want." Out of fear or shyness, Adam declines his offer.

Claire Foy and Andrew Scott in 'All of Us Strangers' (Searchlight Pictures)  

The next day he visits his unoccupied childhood home in Croydon. He finds the ghosts of his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), who were killed in a Christmastime car crash when Adam was almost 12 years old in 1987, a life-altering loss for him. They are the age when they died, marooned in that era.

They ask him questions about his adult life. When Adam returns to London, he sees Harry again and they have sex, beginning an affair. Their almost 20-year generational divide is amusingly displayed by Adam's resistance to the use of queer, while Harry derides the gay term.

Family ties
Adam returns to his home (filmed at Haigh's actual boyhood house) and comes out to his mother as gay. She's rather shocked, wondering if he will lead a lonely life and/or get AIDS. Still he gets to reveal his life to her and she expresses regret, "I hate we weren't around when you needed us most."

On the next visit, he will meet his father, who is more accepting of his sexuality, apologizing for ignoring the crying in his room due to the bullying Adam faced as a child. Bell's willingness to show affection toward Adam is powerful.

It seems only when Adam getting to be a child again, has been embraced by his parents, relishing the acceptance he never found as a boy, and revealed his true self, can he be free to love another man. Having rid himself of any shame, humiliation, or hesitation, letting his guard down, Adam can commit more deeply into his relationship with Harry, to forge a connection in a cold and impersonal world (represented by the tower complex).

Andrew Scott in 'All of Us Strangers' (Searchlight Pictures)  

Harry admits his own family hasn't really embraced him, that he feels like a stranger to them, part of the reason he drinks and takes drugs to mask loneliness and hurt, hiding behind being sexy, flirtatious, and fun. Both men are wounded, unhappy, vulnerable, and emotionally damaged, but their relationship becomes a lifeline as they each process queer dislocation (the difficulty of still being gay and an outsider) and past trauma.

Adam will meet his parents once more in his favorite childhood restaurant, which will be consequential for all of them. There is a shocking, ambiguous, surreal ending involving Harry, which won't be spoiled here.

Ghost of a chance
We use the term ghost (and we refer not to scary specters but ghosts of memory) not mentioned in the film, but it is but one possible explanation. Adam's reunion could also be an exercise in the power of memory to trap us in its recesses but also help us overcome grief.

Perhaps it is the plot of the screenplay he's writing, a waking dream (or that liminal space before you fall asleep), an out-of-body experience occurring at a "thin" place, or, the Croydon train rides into another dimension through a magic portal or rabbit hole. One of the film's charms is to let audiences read into the film whatever they want, and like Adam commence the process of healing inner wounds.

Certainly the movie's biggest impact will be on those who lost a parent at a young age, but also if you were rejected by your parents for being LGBTQ, or it shut out any possibility of sharing any emotional intimacy with them.

This film is blessed with four fantastic performances, especially Andrew Scott. Scott is understated to the point of heartbreaking, where in the beginning of the movie he seems numb, stunted, too scared to let anyone into his life, not saying much because he has trouble expressing himself.

He then undergoes leaps of emotion as he feels accepted, liberated, and finally surrendering his isolation, yearns to connect with another person (in the E.M. Forster sense). Scott masterfully conveys the full range of emotions, especially sadness, torment, and loss, through his eyes.

Scott has the tricky task of revealing the character's internal psychology yet still maintaining Adam's role as an observer. If there's any justice, Scott will be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor, though the competition is steep this year.

Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott in 'All of Us Strangers' (Searchlight Pictures)  

Affable passion
Mescal is open-hearted, able to project the pain underneath the fun, swagger, and camaraderie he emanates. There's an electric charge to their combustible yet warmly affirming passion, but it's totally believable, because Scott can relate as a gay man and can coax (or provide a safe space) the straight Mescal to indulge that eroticism so their connection seems authentic.

Foy is terrific in displaying concern tinged with some disappointment despite being governed by 1980s attitudes about gay men, but she ultimately expresses unwavering love and a willingness to meet Harry.

This is one of those movies that shouldn't be seen alone. Bring a family member or friend, since the film raises many issues as well as varying interpretations. "All of Us Strangers" invokes conversation and questions, almost forcing viewers to reflect on how the issues and emotions (particularly tears) invoked by the film impact on them.

"All of Us Strangers" is mesmerizing, evoking an ethereal (yet not spooky) quality. The film wants to show how you integrate emotional pain into your life, so you can move forward and relieve that sense of alienation most LGBTQ people experience.

The movie leaves it up to the audience to fill in any narrative gaps or provide explanations that square with their own experiences. Those uncomfortable with ambiguity will probably find the film a bit of a trial and the shocking ending will be disconcerting to some viewers.

Still, this is intelligent, punch-in-the-gut filmmaking at its finest. "All of Us Strangers" is easily one of the best films of 2023 and while you might feel emotionally devastated, such catharsis could be as healing as it is for the movie's characters. Despite challenging and disturbing audiences, missing "All of Us Strangers" would be a grave mistake.


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