Ever so often a film comes along that is so emotionally profound as to leave a lasting, ghost-like memory in those who watch it. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or other such stories that cut to the core of the soul of human interpersonal relationships. All of Us Strangers, the latest movie by British director Andrew Haigh, about a middle-aged, tender gay man coping with loneliness and loss, is one such story.
Haigh, a long-time film editor, first came into his own as a director with the 2011 indie romance Weekend. In that hyper-realistic tale, two young gay men spent a profoundly passionate, intense weekend together after meeting at a local, provincial club. At the end of the tryst, one was slated to move abroad, leaving them both marked and changed forever—touched by melancholy but also by the sweetness of finally knowing love.
All of Us Strangers, based on the 1987 novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, is just as real with respect to the deep emotions it conveys, even if many of the plot’s elements are notably more fantastical around the edges. Andrew Scott is the lead protagonist Adam, a handsome, forty-something writer who is working on a screenplay about his childhood without being able to get past: “Int. Suburban House.”
He lives in a ginormous, honeycomb type high rise in the outer rings of exurban London, but, somewhat hauntingly, appears to be its only resident. Other than Harry, that is, played by the even more sensual and notably younger Paul Mescal. Harry stares from his window at Adam when Adam strolls the park in front of the building, and later shows up drunk at Adam’s door, wanting to meet him.
Haigh and his cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay suffuse the proceedings with stunning light as if to convey Adam’s mood. The sun creeps in and then envelops him through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the dawn, and the neon lights of the city traverse the empty sky into his room when he lays on the couch alone, the pulse of the TV screen also emanating over him. It is almost as if Adam inhabits an alien or a post-apocalyptic world devoid of humans who left nothing but incandescence in their wake.
Scott perfectly nails the brooding nature of the role that Haigh’s script so expertly adapts. As Adam stares out his window, or out the train window when he travels to the countryside, you are magnetically drawn to him, both by Scott’s quiet, loving eyes and by Haigh and the filmmaker’s probing camera.
Eventually, Adam begins a conversation with his parents, played by a touching Claire Foy and by Jamie Bell. The strange thing is that his parents are the same age as the last time Adam saw them, meaning they are now about his own age. Through methodic conversations and repeated visits to his childhood home, Adam and his parents fill in the gaps of the years they missed together.
Even for those still fortunate enough to have their parents in their lives, All of Us Strangers does a stunningly good job at making us feel as if they are somehow gone, at imagining what it will be like when we do not have them to convey life-defining moments from our stories.
At the same time, Adam and Harry slowly develop a relationship, spending a lot of time together in their reality-warping apartment building and only exiting occasionally for another equally mind-bending, drug infused drug on the town. Though the focus is on Adam, it is clear that Harry also has demons of his own, as represented in the drinking and the overall loneliness of his own generation. The two being about 20 years apart, it makes sense that their coming out stories may be different, but the point is that the feeling of being alone for gay men has persisted. But the two develop a resoundingly convincing rapport that quickly becomes one of the great onscreen romances, not necessarily for the lust ala Brokeback Mountain, but because of the tenderness—harkening back to Haigh’s expertise developed in Weekend.
As the story develops, All of Us Strangers invites us to examine and revisit all sorts of emotional moments in our lives. Our childhood, the good and bad memories, and lessons from and about our parents, moments we had confused in our childish brains. The script teases us to imagine what they would think about us now if they saw us, or what conversations we would have with them as adults.
The script is also filled with heart-pounding longing, loss, and regret. It continuously takes us back to “what ifs,” and “what nows,” reminding us both that life is ephemeral but that it is urgently worth living. And it tells us, more than anything and through the touching relationship between Adam and Harry, that redemption is always possible, or that hope may always be there, at least if for a fleeting moment.
At the heart of this film is Scott’s quietly powerful delivery that persists through the runtime and through Haigh’s insistence that he be at or near the center of every frame. Foy is both distant and warm as the loving but stern mother. Mescal is growing into his own, and this film permits him to exhibit a bit more range with the ghosts that his character carries around. But the acting kudos really belong to Scott, who anchors the film and delivers a phenomenal emotional punch.
Towards the end of the runtime, a particular development makes All of Us Strangers end with a strange stumble that seems unnecessary. The message of longing and loss was already delivered, and it is as if Haigh did not fully trust his source material. Though these moments are about 60 to 100 seconds, they do leave one wondering. I will not spoil it further here, but suffice it to say that it is enough to keep the emotional power of the movie from being as credible as Weekend.
In every other aspect, however, particularly below the line, Haigh more than furthered himself, and the growing canon of queer fantastical films has gained one of its most important entries to date.
All of Us Strangers had its World Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and will be released by Searchlight Pictures in theaters on December 22, 2023.