Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a film that’s nearly impossible to fully explain and just as impossible to stop thinking about.
At the end of a recent screening, a friend turned to me and said, “The trailer didn’t really prepare me for this!”. I laughed, imagining Haigh and the editor trying to make sense of the things that don’t make sense, but also don’t need to.
Neighbors and Friends
All of Us Strangers sets sail on the journey across the seas of Adam’s (Andrew Scott) grief. Adam toils as a screenwriter experiencing writer’s block. When he goes back to his hometown to find inspiration, he experiences an unlikely reunion with his parents. Adam’s father (Jamie Bell) and mother (Claire Foy) appear as they did when they died nearly 30 years back, and Adam finally has a chance to heal some of his trauma.
Adam lives in a new London highrise that’s still in the process of attracting new tenants. One night, during a fire drill, he spots one of the few others who live in the building. Later, “I’m Harry” (Paul Mescal) shows up at Adam’s door wanting a drink. Adam initially declines, but soon after he can’t shake Harry’s presence and the two begin a whirlwind romance. The title of the film can have many meanings, but the most salient seems to be the idea that his parents and Harry are strangers to Adam, despite his affection and curiosity for them. The film explores them all meeting each other and Adam truly discovering himself.
The film's plot is based on Strangers by Taichi Yamada. It’s a loose interpretation and complete reimagining from Haigh, who made the story less supernatural and more metaphorical. Haigh has always valued a slow build that doesn’t spoon-feed the audience. All of Us Strangers certainly encourages conversation, but the subject depends more on the viewer – and what the viewer absorbed from their viewing of the film. Haigh’s projects always have multiple layers. On the surface projects like Looking and Weekend are about undefined love, but they often go deeper into themes of internalized homophobia and self-identity.
All of Us Strangers continues this trend and expertly uses the cast to add the gravitas needed to land such a premise. Andrew Scott’s eyebrows can make a meal of the minutia on their own, the man oozes theatricality from his pores. He can play to the back of the room with a twitch of his cheek and a small wink. Scott delights in the quiet, and the film feels like a playground for him. Adam sets the baseline of normalcy for the viewer so succinctly that it’s easy to forget that his parents died. Foy and Bell give perfect supporting turns, playing Adam’s parents despite Adam being older than them when they died. They still refer to him as “champ;” Mom fixes his favorite snack and dries his clothes from the rain. Dad gives him the ornament to put on the tree. And Scott employs a childlike innocence without infantilizing the character.
These moments of surrealism are gorgeous on their own, but when Adam returns to the real world and his relationship with Harry, Haigh reveals even more subtlety. Mescal plays Harry as young, open, and willing to take chances and try. It may seem like a small distinction, but who knows if Adam would have ever made a move on him. He’d dismissed him twice before, only the hope of something greater can compel a guy to try again. Harry serves as a way to protect Adam while also exposing the pain that still lives inside of him. When they ask questions about one another, they never shy away from their true feelings.
Haigh also instilled a strong sense of physical male intimacy that I’m glad to say is becoming more common in mainstream media. The camera lingers on Adam’s chest, and it’s salacious but not lewd. Harry laps his tongue across Adam’s chest, and feels just as sweet as a kiss. The beauty of the openness of the love scenes extends to the time that they spend together. They’re constantly petting each other, having a physical connection just to know the other is really there.
There’s a trust that Haigh shares with his audience, he expects viewers to wait, and he makes sure it’s worth it. He doesn’t expect the audience to understand everything, but he does expect them to have an opinion and to look deeper into themselves. Haigh films Scott’s scenes with his parents with a simple beauty. Every corner keeps something that only fits in a full home: a hand-me-down tchotchke, a worn book with a school picture as a bookmark. There’s no artifice, Haigh doesn’t over or under-do it, he sets the setting just right.
Along with cinematographer James Ramsay, Haigh created a gloomy day that always looks like dawn or dusk. There is light, but it wanes as Adam’s mood does. There are only a few locations for the film, the two primary ones being Adam’s flat and his childhood home. Each looks more and more lived in as the movie progresses, and it’s a wonderfully subtle way to denote the passage of time.
This awards season, I believe Andrew Scott will gain deserved recognition for his performance. It’s just too good in a way that no one else can be envisioned in his role. Claire Foy and Jamie Bell are also irreplaceable; the only genuinely tertiary character was Harry. That’s not to devalue Mescal’s genuine and great performance, it’s just a character meant to be less than multidimensional. Adam, however, contains multitudes, and Scott’s performance will have viewers debating and discussing long after they've watched the film.
All of Us Strangers is a solid, excellently executed, and beautiful film. It fires on all cylinders, both demanding the viewer’s participation and rewarding it at the end. Haigh has a hidden gem on his hands, and though it’s not big and splashy, the movie does have a major impact.
Score: 10/10 SPECS
All of Us Strangers premiered at Telluride film festival and will open in the US on December 22nd, then in the UK on January 26th.