THE STORY – A screenwriter drawn back to his childhood home enters into a fledgling relationship with a mysterious neighbor as he then discovers his parents appear to be living just as they were on the day they died, 30 years before.
THE CAST – Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell & Claire Foy
THE TEAM – Andrew Haigh (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
Whether it’s a secret affair in “45 Years” or an unexpected chance at love in “Weekend,” filmmaker Andrew Haigh has created a gallery of indelible screen characters who yearn for emotional fulfillment and teeter just on the edge of getting it. These themes recur in his latest and most personal drama to date, “All of Us Strangers,” but here, Haigh taps into something more profound — the idea that seeking closure with your past may be the only way to open the door to joy in your future.
Adam (Andrew Scott) is a gay 40-ish-year-old screenwriter living in a brand-new but sparsely-populated high-rise on the edge of London. In fact, there seems to be only one other tenant in the building — Harry (an irresistible Paul Mescal), who shows up one night at Adam’s door with bedroom eyes and an open bottle of vodka. Adam sensibly declines his offer, but something about this young man has stirred a longing in him that he has long suppressed. Adam is damaged goods, and he knows it. He lost his parents in a car crash when he was 12, and when he finally came out in the 1990s, just as the AIDS crisis was raging, Adam chose to withdraw from seeking fulfillment sexually. That decision may have saved his life, but it came at the cost of his emotional development. That damage has never completely disappeared, and he seeks to grapple with it by writing a screenplay about his childhood. A photo of his boyhood home prompts a train trip back to his hometown where, to his shock, Adam comes face to face with his father (Jamie Bell) and mother (Claire Foy), who are still living in their family home and looking no older than they did the last time that he saw them 35 years before.
“All Of Us Strangers” is no ghost story in the traditional scene. Adam’s parents are very much aware that they’re dead and have returned only for a short time to ensure their little boy has turned out OK (“Being OK” is a recurring theme that Haigh skillfully weaves throughout his screenplay). As Adam tries to reassure them that he has become a responsible adult, we see the shadow of the eager-to-please 12-year-old who is still so afraid of the world that he needs to climb into bed with his sleeping parents for security.
These delicate scenes could have gone so wrong so easily. Still, it is to the enormous credit of both Haigh and Scott that what could have seemed ludicrous on the page is so emotionally compelling when played out with a subtle degree of nuanced and measured pacing to allow the calm but almost otherwordly mood of the film to sink in. Almost as tricky to pull off are the intimate scenes with Harry, who, far from the dangerous lout to whom we are first introduced, shares as many fears and insecurities as Adam, quietly observing that when gay people reach adulthood, many look back and realize that they are all, to some degree, strangers in their own family.
While at first glance, the film, adapted from the 1987 novel “Strangers” by Taichi Yamada, may seem very tailored to a specific audience, the more Haigh particularizes his characters, the more universal they become. Gay audiences will undoubtedly respond to seeing the personal and political struggles that many have encountered in life, and here, it’s depicted in such an empathetic way. Straight audiences may have a different takeaway, seeing in both Adam and Harry’s story that caring for one’s emotional needs is crucial to finding a happy life. And for those who have already lost both of their parents, the possibility that they might have a final chance to say goodbye and, wherever possible, say “thank you” is emotionally shattering.
Haigh’s particular skill at directing actors — Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years” or the ensemble in “Weekend,” for example — is well known, but the performances in “All of Us Strangers” rise to a whole other level. Mescal skillfully reveals the many layers of Harry at a pace that draws us ever closer as Harry becomes more emotionally intimate with Adam. Foy and Bell are at the top of their game and form their own bond as a believably married couple and loving parents.
But it’s Scott who quietly devastates. The British stage actor, primarily known to American audiences as the Hot Priest in “Fleabag,” has created in Adam, a gay man who appears emotionally together on the surface but whose shattered soul is barely held together by his aching need for love, whether from his parents or Harry. It’s not just that Adam wants the chance to say goodbye to his parents, an opportunity that was snatched from him as a child. He needs to hear their reassurance to him that he has indeed turned out OK. Scott is extraordinary in what is easily his best role to date, quietly gathering a growing force that provides the film with one last emotional wallop that will move any audience to tears.
If there are any qualms about the film, it may be with Haigh’s decision to include one last twist in the final moments that may be powerful in theory but rests uneasily with all that has come before. A more conventional ending here may have been the more satisfying choice and fit better with the already established themes of learning to let go and move on from unimaginable grief. Yet somehow, Haigh pulls us back with one final extraordinary image that is both gorgeous in its composition and unforgettable in its resounding impact. It lingers long after the final credits are over, firmly establishing this is Haigh’s most confident directorial work to date in a staggeringly beautiful film that will touch audiences.