All of Us Strangers A quasi-memory film with the out-of-body feel of a waking dream, All of Us Strangers is in some ways a companion piece to Andrew Haigh’s stunning 2011 breakthrough, Weekend. But it also feels like something new, strange and soul-stirring that the director has been working toward his entire career.
Adapting the 1987 novel Strangers, by Japanese author Taichi Yamada, Haigh has rendered the story acutely personal, making the protagonist a queer writer in his 40s and downplaying the ghost elements of his dead parents to move away from genre into more dramatic, psychological and profoundly emotional territory.
The Searchlight release, opening Dec. 22 after screenings at the Telluride and New York film festivals, is both specific to Haigh’s life and relatable enough to connect with anyone who has experienced the comforts and sorrows of both familial and romantic love.
For a generation of gay men, especially, its reflections on coming of age in the 1980s, making it through the AIDS epidemic and readjusting — or not — to the more relaxed norms of sex in the post-crisis era will strike resonant chords. Its observations about losing parents at a tender age, before the character-forming years of adolescence and early adulthood, are searing, direct, almost overwhelmingly poignant. But even some LGBTQ audiences who came out to their parents and lost them later in life are likely to feel pangs of recognition in the things left unsaid.
Without wishing to indulge in sweeping generalizations about national stereotypes, this is an English movie that’s uncommonly candid in the unsentimental rawness of its feelings, the naked vulnerability of its characters, making its impact all the more piercing. The four principal actors in the chamber piece, which plays with time, place and consciousness in boldly unconventional ways, respond to that approach with fully attuned performances, each of them yielding moments that brought tears to my eyes.
At the center of the story is Adam, a 40something screenwriter played by Andrew Scott in a shattering turn steeped in melancholy yearning that should put this superb actor — still best known outside British theater circles as the “Hot Priest” on season 2 of Fleabag — on a larger international map.
Adam is struggling to make headway on a script set in the late ‘80s and inspired by his working-class parents, both of whom were killed in an auto accident while returning home from a Christmas party when he was 12. He watches Brit-pop music videos and plays records from the period — Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Fine Young Cannibals — and sifts through family photographs, but the words don’t come. He spends more time absently staring out at the London skyline across the Thames from the massive apartment block where he lives alone.
The only other tenant in the recently completed building seems to be a younger man named Harry (Paul Mescal), who appears half-smashed at Adam’s door one night with a bottle of Japanese whiskey and a seductive smile. As forward and unabashed as Adam is reserved, Harry invites himself in: “If not a drink, for whatever else you might want.” But the writer’s shyness, fear or the walls he has constructed around himself cause him to decline, if somewhat regretfully.
Around the same time, Adam starts taking the train to the outer South London suburbs where he grew up, near Croyden, the blurred world outside the carriage windows subtly hinting at a shift to another dimension. As Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s pensive electronic score hums and chimes, Adam walks by his childhood home and then wanders off into a park, where a man around the same age appears through the trees indicating to follow him.
Haigh knowingly sets up that scene to suggest a gay cruising ground pickup, which makes for a disconcerting jolt when the stranger is revealed to be Adam’s Dad (Jamie Bell). Greeting his son as if the encounter is a pleasant surprise rather than some ethereal trick of time, his Dad accompanies him back to the house, where Adam’s delighted mother (Claire Foy) eagerly welcomes him. “Our boy’s back home,” says his Dad with a smile. “You’ve always been a sensitive boy, you,” adds his Mum when Adam appears overcome by the reunion. Before leaving, he agrees to visit again.
The fact that his parents haven’t aged in the 30-plus years since they died is treated neither as a supernatural occurrence nor as something hatched out of a writer’s nostalgic imagination. Instead, it plays as straight-up realism, conjured more by the emptiness and longing that seem to have defined Adam ever since those years of family sanctuary were abruptly stolen from him. Only his parents gradually reveal their awareness that there are rules, finite boundaries concerning their returning presence in his life.
They ask questions about their own deaths and his subsequent life in scenes that accrue emotional urgency as it becomes apparent that the reunion won’t last forever. The one-on-one exchanges, first with his mother home alone and then later his father, are exquisite, filled with discovery and wonder but also aching ruefulness.
Adam gazes at and touches the familiar things in his childhood bedroom — pop star posters, record albums — as his Mum marvels at the man he’s grown into while insisting that he take off his rain-soaked clothes. “Look at you,” she says wistfully. “You were just a boy. Now you’re not.” Adam responds to her questions about whether he has a girlfriend with a frankness that takes her by surprise when she learns he’s gay: “As in homosexual?” She remains startled as she spouts outmoded preconceptions (“They say it’s a very lonely kind of life”) and he tries to reassure her that many things have changed in the decades since.
While his mother initially has a tough time accepting that her son is gay, his father is surprisingly unperturbed about it, hinting that perhaps he always knew: “You couldn’t throw a ball for shit.” That scene is quietly harrowing as Adam recalls being bullied at school, weeping in his once homophobic Dad’s arms. His father’s admission that he did nothing when he heard Adam sobbing in his room because he probably would have been among the bullies back in his own school days is a moment of pathos that hits you hard in the guts.
At the same time Adam is filling in the gaps with his parents — an experience both healing and unsettling that Scott plays as a mature man jolted back to the fragility of childhood — a second encounter with Harry leads to the swift evolution of intimacy between the two men.
This happens notably in a trippy sequence set to Blur’s “Death of a Party,” where they hit a gay dance club, snort ketamine in the restroom and then drift seamlessly into the kind of domestic harmony that appears to have eluded them both up to that point. Extroverted Harry’s sexual forwardness contrasts with Adam’s fearful inhibition, so when they connect it’s sensual and uplifting.
Few directors use carefully selected pre-existing music choices as evocatively as Haigh. Think those gorgeous John Grant songs in Weekend; the Sister Sledge “Lost in Music” remix at the Russian River dance party in Looking; the Bonnie Prince Billy cover of “The World’s Greatest” in Lean on Pete
This film is no exception, whether it’s The Housemartins’ “Build” on the turntable as Adam and Harry break the ice; Adam’s Mum and Dad singing along awkwardly to Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind” around the Christmas tree, a scene both joyful and shaded with bone-deep sadness; or Frankie’s “The Power of Love” over a stunner of a final shot that pretty much destroyed me. These are not the usual era-identifying needle drops but exquisitely calibrated tonal enhancements, expertly integrated with Levienaise-Farrouch’s atmospheric score.
Scott conveys Adam’s escalating despair about possibly losing his parents a second time with a need written clearly in his eyes. It’s hard to recall a more touching sight than this grown man in a preteen boy’s silly red pajamas, as if he’s willing himself back to a time before the terror that he’d always be alone solidified into a knot in his chest, as he puts it. The fact that an aborted attempt to introduce Harry to his folks precipitates their efforts to retreat from their son’s life so he can move on makes it even more heartrending.
Their final visit together in a shopping-mall diner is an acting master class in which Scott, Foy and Bell put feelings into words that will speak volumes to many audiences, whatever their sexuality, who can recall waiting years to hear certain affirmations from their parents. But the specificity of the scene to gay boys with fathers unaccustomed to openly showing affection is what makes it special.
In Haigh’s script, the circumstances of their separation at a formative time in Adam’s life are written by a cruel stroke of fate. But many queer audiences cut off from their families after coming out will recognize the urge on both sides to rewrite fractured history and share words that were never said.
Haigh lays a trail of clues about the reality of Adam’s life in contemporary London and Harry’s role in it. The fact that Harry wears a mustache much like Adam’s Dad, and his kind eyes and facial stubble fit Adam’s description of the police officer who came that night years ago to inform him of his parents’ death seems significant. But even if you guess where it’s headed, the disclosures of the final act are devastating.
The warm, sexy chemistry between Scott and Mescal is a key factor, with the latter bringing soulfulness as well as humor and a sense of fun to his character, whose supportive presence in Adam’s life belies Harry’s own damage.
All of Us Strangers has qualities that have always been there in Haigh’s work — a keen perceptiveness about human nature, desire, fear, loss and the restorative power of connection. Here, those aspects come together in his most uniquely personal film since Weekend, a feeling perhaps fortified by the knowledge that scenes with Adam’s parents were shot in the director’s own childhood home. The movie also makes eloquent points about the refuge of imagination, even if it’s temporary.
While it unfolds in a hazy dream state rooted in Adam’s loneliness and the emotional suspension that has blocked him from moving forward, it’s by no means a downer. It’s a thing of beauty, heartfelt and unforgettable.