Vague Visages’ All of Us Strangers review contains minor spoilers. Andrew Haigh’s 2023 movie features Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal and Carter John Grout. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
There’s something ever so slightly off about the London of All of Us Strangers. And this isn’t just because of the eerily quiet Stratford apartment block that Adam (Andrew Scott) lives in. From the second the protagonist begins to reminisce about a traumatic, formative childhood event, it feels like the world around him has been suspended in motion. When Adam first appears, he’s a screenwriter with a serious case of writer’s block and an even more severe case of nostalgic melancholy. Most of the soundtrack songs in All of Us Strangers originate from the 1980s — tunes from Adam’s childhood which are nearly all diegetic within the drama itself. The simple process of pressing play on a nostalgic record or throwing on a retro YouTube clip seems to blur the lines between past and present, welcoming back the ghosts of the protagonist’s formative years.
Of course, that’s more of a theoretical explanation for the mechanics of Andrew Haigh’s ghost story, loosely adapted from the 1987 novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada. The writer-director seems to understand that the emotional core of his film would fall apart the second it ushered in exposition to explain its supernatural aspects, or make the audience question the extent to which the drama plays out inside its protagonist’s head. Instead, from the second Adam’s parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) reappear inside his childhood home — despite their deaths when he was just 12 — All of Us Strangers operates exclusively on emotional logic, so beautifully drawn that I can’t imagine a single viewer would ponder the otherworldly mechanics that brought the ghosts back to life.
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The most significant change from the source material is that All of Us Strangers’ protagonist has been rewritten as a gay man, which in turn ensures the story is now explicitly about the queer community’s generational trauma. Early on, Adam realizes he must reveal to his parents that he’s gay — this is difficult for them to grasp, as they’re suspended in a decade of bigotry and moral panics in conjunction with the AIDS crisis. The mother of Scott’s character echoes the era’s sentiments that being openly gay must translate to a “lonely life,” and it remains horrified by the giant gravestones that were central to the UK government’s extremely belated awareness campaign — one only put into effect upon the realization it wasn’t just gay men contracting the virus. At first, this merely seems like a way to highlight the divide between generations when it comes to views of sexuality: powerfully written but nothing more than a culture clash. Further inspection reveals that the community’s ongoing trauma from a pandemic that many didn’t even experience firsthand is at the core of Haigh’s tale.
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After all, Adam does lead a “lonely life” in All of Us Strangers. He’s a gay man approaching middle age who lives in an apartment complex so empty that it almost feels abandoned, and all his friends have long left the city to start suburban lives elsewhere. Adam’s only connection is the twenty-something Mancunian Harry (Paul Mescal), the only other soul in his building. Their relationship develops in tandem with them picking apart generational differences regarding their sexuality; Adam hates the term “queer,” as it reminds him of names he was bullied with at school, while Harry rejects the term “gay” for the same reason. Adam hadn’t come of age at the time of the AIDS crisis, and yet the ostracization the queer community received was so embedded within the culture that he felt it from a young age — long before he’d even come out. It’s unclear how long Adam remained in the closet, but that trauma feels just as fundamental in shaping him as the loss of his parents. The protagonist feels as isolated from the wider world as he did then, even if Adam insists otherwise.
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That conversation between Adam and Harry, navigating the various terms they use to self-identify, is one of the many masterfully written sequences in All of Us Strangers that made me laugh and made my eyes well up within the space of a single sentence. Harry isn’t the richly defined character that Adam is, at first feeling like a movie construct; their initial meeting in Adam’s doorway, when he quotes a lyric from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love,” plays out like such an archetypal meet-cute that it doesn’t feel organic. But, as with everything else in Haigh’s uncanny film, this is by design. Harry is revealed to be a richer character than the introduction suggests, but he’s more notably an avatar for a younger generation who have borrowed the pop culture of their elders, but not the trauma which has forged their relationship to their sexuality.
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I don’t think All of Us Strangers is particularly subtle. As with Haigh’s 2011 film Weekend and HBO series Looking, the filmmaker’s queer characters directly wax lyrical on their formative issues and don’t hide behind ambiguities. However, I do wonder if this richness will get slightly lost in translation to viewers outside of the LGBTQ community, those who may be moved by a son’s need to find some closure but may not fully comprehend the depth to its introspections on sexuality. This is already bearing out at festival screenings, where certain lines of dialogue on this topic are being met with rapturous laughter, and even the most enthusiastic tweets only bring up the film’s queerness in relation to the sex scene between the two male leads — perhaps the least interesting factor in their relationship as it develops. Of course, even those viewers have been moved to floods of tears by the final act. When viewed as part of a wider allegory for coming to terms with a pandemic that took millions of men long before their time, it makes perfect sense. All of Us Strangers is a film that becomes all the more haunting the further from it you get.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.
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