All of Us Strangers begins with a slow, faded shot of Andrew Scott looking at the London skyline and his own murky reflection in a dirty, foggy window, and the film’s attention to introspection only ramps up from there. Filmmaker Andrew Haigh strikes gold in this moving, heart-wrenching drama about the lasting trauma of grief, isolation and the all-too-human fear of loneliness.
ALL OF US STRANGERS ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The movie sees Scott starring as Adam, a screenwriter at a bit of a loss creatively. He lives alone in a nice new apartment building, with only a handful of other tenants around. The stagnant state of his life gets disrupted, though, when a drunken neighbor named Harry (Paul Mescal) knocks on his door. While a tentative relationship buds between the two, Adam gets a big shock when, upon returning to his childhood home for inspiration, he sees his father—who died along with his mother when he was only twelve years old. Impossibly able to reconnect with both of his parents (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), Adam tries to mend the hole in his heart made by their absence.
The premise and plot keep the metaphysical exploration of all of this to a minimum, which is for the best. The ghostly get-together is too good to be true, but Adam embraces the oddity of (after)life with an open mind and open arms. It helps that Foy and Bell imbue the passed-on parents with such warmth and pride in their grown son that it’s nigh impossible to doubt that these two are his loving mum and dad.
Underneath this rosy reunion, though, lies a cold reality. Adam’s parents died when he was a boy, before he had the chance to fully understand that he was gay, much less to come out to them. His childhood was marred by repression, bullying and a pervasive sense of loneliness; though the death of his parents clearly added to that, it’s not the root cause. Watching Adam come to terms with that is exquisitely painful, as Scott wrenches more emotionality out of a single tear than scores of actors can get from full monologues.
It hurts to see Adam share his sexuality with his parents, to see a man seemingly secure in his identity be decimated by the uncertainty that comes with coming out. His parents are hardly homophobes, but this version of them, stuck in time, are still far from fully understanding. Their reactions hit home a pervading sense of otherness, one that’s compounded by Adam’s own lack of a domestic life. It’s not that his gayness has precluded him from making a family for himself, as others may imply, but something deeper and far more personal. Perhaps that otherness is intrinsic to the contemporary queer experience (Harry, distant from his own family, seems to imply it in one intimate scene), but not to the identity.
All of Us Strangers is meditative and cerebral in nature, careful and quiet in execution. Haigh crafts an isolated London life for Adam, from his all but empty apartment complex to an alienating night out at a club. It makes his time with Harry all the sweeter, as Scott and Mescal create a beautiful intimacy between two men who desperately need it. There are moments of humor amidst the drama—Foy’s motherly fretting, Harry’s intense flirting, Adam inexplicably waking up in some bright, adult-sized childrens pajamas—characters begging to be laughed with in the middle of their own sad sagas.
Haigh’s film could very easily have melted into melodrama, too saccharine or melancholy to make an impact, but it largely avoids that charge. All of Us Strangers’ only misstep occurs with its final dramatic twist, the beat feeling unearned compared to the rest of the movie’s expertly written story. It’s certainly not enough to derail the film (it’s genuinely too good to be ruined by something so late in the game), but it doesn’t make for the most satisfying ending. Of course, you may be too caught up in the rest of All of Us Strangers’ quiet, poignant magnificence to care.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.