Always on my mind

‘All of Us Strangers’ is a ghostly love story

Andrew Scott (left) and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers. Courtesy: Film4 / Blueprint Pictures

Some people are never more alone than they are in the company of others. Adam is such a person.

Adam (Andrew Scott) is a screenwriter living in a newly built high-rise on the outskirts of London. Not many residents have moved in, which is evident when the fire alarm is tripped and he’s one of maybe six outside waiting to go back in. When he looks up at the glittering tower, only a handful of lights are on. How much lonelier can you get?

A lot, apparently. When Adam was 12, he lost his parents in a car crash. He’s done well for himself in the intervening years — he lives in the penthouse suite — but he still carries all the loneliness of growing up without his mom and dad, who never knew the man he became. Now he’s trying to write a script, presumably set around that fateful day, but can’t quite get the words on the page.

Based on Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers, filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s film is a somber and intimate movie that remains in one register — probably the same register Adam has been in since his parents died. To call it “melancholic” is close but still not quite right. Adam is adrift and desperate to find something or someone to anchor himself to. And he does: His name is Harry.

Harry (Paul Mescal) is another sad face with a forced smile plastered on, which is apt considering the state of inebriation Harry’s in when he knocks on Adam’s door. They’re both queer and in desperate need of company. But the desperation is too much, and Adam turns Harry away. The next time Harry shows up, though, Adam welcomes him in.

Pay attention to doors when watching All of Us Strangers — mirrors, too. They pepper a lot of Haigh’s narrative. Sometimes, they show reality. Other times, they illustrate an emotional reality. That might sound disorienting, but I assure you, it’s the only grounding you’ll find.

All of Us Strangers is magical realism. Nothing that happens here seems out of the realm of possibility, even when Adam visits the suburban home where he grew up for research and finds his two parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) living there as if a day hadn’t passed since 1987. How is this possible? All of Us Strangers never says.

And for good reason. Adam accepts the corporeal visions and begins interacting with them. Mom and Dad learn about their son’s life and orientation, and Adam gets to unpack the emotional baggage he’s been dragging with him for 20 years. He finds warmth in their presence, and they find comfort in knowing their child grew up OK without them. It’s such a beautiful collection of scenes that it almost takes the sting off the inevitability that Adam is going to have to lose them again. Almost.

But where the movie excels, it is also hindered. Haigh maintains tension and believability by never varying the movie’s tone, which works but also can make for a trying sit. The first time I saw All of Us Strangers, Haigh’s tight tonal control brought me closer to boredom than curiosity. A second viewing improves things significantly, but it still feels like Haigh is trying to hold viewers at arm’s length.

There’s a lot of grief to sift through in All of Us Strangers. Adam and Harry share several intimate moments and conversations, and there’s a sense that the troubles they’ve experienced as gay men have never been fully resolved. When Harry asks Adam for his preferred form of intercourse, Adam reveals that the act has scared him for so long because of its connection with AIDS. There’s so much sorrow he’s been running from. No wonder Adam is seeing ghosts out there. 

ON SCREEN: All of Us Strangers opens in limited release Dec. 22 and everywhere Jan. 16.


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