Loosely based on Taichi Yamada’s well-regarded 1987 novel, Strangers, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s (Lean on Pete, 45 Years, Weekend) adaptation, All of Us Strangers, locates the central character’s melancholic loneliness not in the present, where personal and professional disappointments are more likely the cause, but in the immutable past. For Adam (Andrew Scott), a forty-something, modestly successful, London-based screenwriter, the past refuses to remain the past. Adam carries a grief-stained childhood with him, sometimes as a burden, sometimes as a blessing, but it always remains unseen, hovering just out of frame and out of reach, perpetually reminding Adam of what he’s lost and can never recover or regain. The past, unresolved and unreconciled, casts a heavy pall over not just his personality, but on how he interacts with the world below and outside his one-bedroom condo-apartment.
That formative loss of his parents has left Adam in a kind of perpetual suspended animation, remaindered to the past, incapable of moving forward. Taking a key element – though very little else – from Yamada’s novel, Haigh mirrors Adam’s troubled psyche with a sparsely populated, almost empty outer world. The partner- and child-free Adam lives alone in a new high-rise apartment building. Still empty except for one or two others, including Harry (Paul Mescal), a newly arrived, deeply unhappy neighbor who, at a minimum, intrigues a lonely Adam. When Harry, bottle in hand, makes a drunken play for the older Adam, practically suggesting they spend the night together, in no small measure to assuage their shared loneliness, a reticent, hesitant Adam rejects his offer without completely forestalling a future clothes-optional encounter.
While far from unimportant (their fumbling, awkward, eventually tender sex scenes suggest otherwise), Adam’s tentative relationship with Harry isn’t the central relationship All of Us Strangers sensitively explores: It’s Adam’s relationship with his long-gone, long-dead parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy). Adam lost his parents in a tragic accident before graduating from the British equivalent of elementary school. Their sudden, totalizing, wrenching loss – and the stability, safety, and, security, not to mention the unconditional love they represented – not only changed Adam irrevocably but likely altered the direction of his life well into his adult years, making him resistant, if not outright incapable, of forming a long-lasting, intimate bond with a romantic partner.
With a quiet train ride to the countryside, All of Us Strangers leaves its mostly realistic, grounded setting behind. Either because he’s writing a screenplay set in 1987 (with period-specific, gay-centric musical cues), suffering from an attenuated case of artistic ennui, or experiencing something ineffable, Adam returns to his hometown for a daytime visit and – in a metaphysical, possibly meta-fictional leap that remains unexplained well beyond the end credits – Adam encounters his parents, not as they would appear in the present-day, but just as they did when he lost them. They, like Adam, are figuratively and literally stuck in the past.
Adam, however, doesn’t revert to his childhood self but instead remains the adult Adam interacting with his similarly aged parents. Unsurprisingly, seeing his parents again comes as a shock to Adam, but it’s a welcome one. In a series of encounters across several visits, Adam plays a form of catch-up with his parents, updating them on personal, cultural, and social events, including the tectonic political changes associated with LGBTQ+ rights. Sometimes the info-dump doesn’t go as well as initially expected or hoped (i.e., when his mother haltingly processes the news of Adam’s sexual orientation in real-time). A other times, they reflect something more universal, embracing the belief that parents, regardless of where (or when) they are, owe their children unconditional love.
Adam’s resurrected parents represent nothing less than fantasy/wish fulfillment. For all their happiness in being reunited with their long-lost son, they still unknowingly reflect the outdated, occasionally regressive values of their time, and yet, through their repeated encounters with the adult Adam, they grow and evolve too. It seems impossible if the most likely interpretation that they are, in fact (and fiction), ghosts and not projections from Adam’s mind holds true. (Haigh, however, also leaves open the possibility that both interpretations could be true simultaneously.)
Whatever the rationale for their return (therapeutic for them, Adam, or both), it’s Adam’s halting personal journey that matters most in Haigh’s deeply poignant adaptation. Adam’s journey inexorably leads him toward reconciliation and resolution he desperately needs. That personal journey also encompasses how Adam eventually chooses to handle an intimate, possibly long-term relationship with Harry. Haigh explores both relationships with subtlety, delicacy, and empathy, exquisitely matched by a talented cast that arguably delivers the best performances of their respective careers.
All of Us Strangers opens on Friday, December 22nd, in limited release. A wider release has been planned for January.