Unraveling the complicated media relationship between mortality, morality, and men in love in the wake of Andrew Haigh’s conflicted adaptation
Warning: Major spoilers for the ending of All of Us Strangers. It is highly recommended to not read the following until after watching the film for yourself.
For the majority of its runtime, I believed All of Us Strangers was doing something miraculous.
Andrew Haigh’s film follows Adam (Andrew Scott), a gay screenwriter eking out his 40s isolated in his desolate London high-rise. Despite Adam’s initial rejection, he sparks a connection with his sole neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal); together, they unveil shared struggles as gay men across the generation gap, from labeling dilemmas to social acceptance. Adam finally reveals his past as a closeted youth in 1980s Britain amid the AIDS crisis, where he was unable to come out to his parents before their tragic deaths. Though society has shifted towards gay acceptance, Adam’s youthful alienation endures, a haunting thread in his lonely life. However, Adam’s lessening of his emotional barriers with Harry seems to impact the boundaries between life and death–as Adam is unexpectedly reunited with his resurrected parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) upon returning to his childhood home. Unbound by the demands of time and space, Adam openly discusses his gay identity and its ramifications with his parents–how much they may have already known, how much the world has changed since they died–ultimately helping Adam achieve closure to a grief that’s pervaded his entire life.
All of Us Strangers tenderly and sincerely addresses near-universal Queer experiences of rejection, repression, loss, and isolation. In transcending death, the film speaks to the myriad deaths Queer people face in their relationships–whether it be physical at the hands of disease or violence, or emotional in the form of rejection by those we love most. In finding a spiritual attempt at reconciliation, All of Us Strangers makes space for the possibility that we can heal from the pervasive trauma that can become ingrained with our identities.
Until that ending.
Despite his attempts to convince them to remain in his life, Adam acknowledges the emotional toll of maintaining a connection with his departed parents. Ultimately, Adam heartbreakingly guides his parents peacefully to the afterlife, finding closure and newfound hope for his relationship with Harry. However, upon his return to Harry’s apartment, Adam discovers a gruesome sight: Harry’s dead body. Strangers’ fluid approach to time and reality leaves the details of Harry’s passing deliberately vague. However, Harry’s decomposition along with a nearby liquor bottle and ketamine offered at the film’s beginning suggests Harry died shortly after Adam’s initial rejection, revealing a haunting truth–that Harry has been a ghost all along. Harry is racked with the existential crisis of remembering his death when Adam attempts to soothe him:
Harry: “I’m in there, aren’t I? …I don’t want you to see me like that.”
Adam: “You’re not in there. You’re not in there. You’re here. You’re right here. With me.”
The pair retire to Adam’s apartment, lying in bed as Adam reflects on how he spent his time with his parents before Harry urges Adam to not let his heart “get tangled up again.” Adam and Harry embrace in a moment seemingly frozen in time, a beacon of celestial hope in the universe, caught in a lovingly liminal space between life and death. The Frankie Goes to Hollywood song alluded to by Harry in that ill-fated first meeting overwhelms the picture and guides us to a close:
“I’ll protect you from the hooded claw/Keep the vampires from your door/When the chips are down I’ll be around/With my undying, death-defying love for you…”
All of Us Strangers crafts a romantically immortal conclusion for Adam and Harry that defies the boundaries of life and death despite the tragedies they endure. However, after Adam’s intense emotional journey, Adam’s gradual acceptance of parental loss gives way to his reassurances to Harry and a seemingly shared denial of his death. Adam’s sentiment, “You’re not in there, you’re right here with me,” feels like both comfort to Harry and a self-conviction for Adam. Just as he comes to terms with parental loss and embraces the potential of a meaningful Queer life, Adam’s confronted with the loss of Harry and everything it means to him. In a knee-jerk reaction to this fresh trauma, Adam denies it, swapping resolved trauma for further unresolved turmoil. Instead of finding solace, the conclusion of All of Us Strangers left me deeply horrified.
I’ve spent the last few weeks and additional viewings of Haigh’s film trying to reckon with how I feel about this ending and the sour taste it leaves in my mouth. Interviews by Haigh mention how younger viewers have disliked the film’s conclusion, despite how hopeful he intends the ending to be, acknowledging an intent to show how tragedy still happens even in a modern era of Queer joy.
“And there’s this strange thing about it. A lot of young people—and I say this from experience—should be happy being queer now. We live in a different world. But it’s still complicated, and tragedy still happens. I love the idea of “the power of queer joy,” but you have to look underneath, or it all falls apart. We have so much we’ve carried around with us, from people before us. We know what it felt like for us growing up, what it felt like for other people before us. That history is still present.”Andrew Haigh with Isaac Feldberg, RogerEbert.com
A standout feature of All of Us Strangers is its sincere attempt to bridge the Queer generation gap, particularly by addressing how older gay men like Adam and Haigh faced societal stigma in their youth, leading to deep-rooted traumas that continue to impact their capacity for meaningful intimacy. Through Adam and Harry’s relationship, Haigh successfully engages in an open conversation with younger generations, sharing the struggles endured to pave the way for a more inclusive world. However, it’s still perplexing that All of Us Strangers insists on ending in further tragedy, especially considering its extensive runtime dedicated to earnest confrontation and acceptance. Comparisons to the film’s source material, Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers, illuminated how Haigh’s approach both deepened the complexity of the film and contributed to my distaste for its conclusion.
Haigh has acknowledged the film being a loose adaptation of Yamada’s novel, itself previously adapted into The Discarnates by Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi in 1988 (wild, I know). However, All of Us Strangers surprisingly aligns with the novel’s overall structure, featuring a lonely man in a tentative romance reunited with parents lost at an early age. The monumental difference lies in the central characters’ orientation and gender: Harry’s character in Yamada’s novel is a woman, and the novel features a straight romance. Haigh’s introduction of gay story beats vastly benefits the first two-thirds of the story, with this deepened context allowing for a deft exploration of near-universal Queer experiences. By tackling topics like being closeted, gay bashing, and the AIDS crisis, All of Us Strangers makes space for exploring how love and loss (while experiences shared by both gay and straight relationships) are further intertwined in gay romances with historical and cultural nuances that straight relationships vitally lack.
However, both the novel and film retain a key plot twist—the modern love interest has been a ghost all along–thus applying cultural baggage in ways I don’t believe Haigh fully intended. While Andrew Scott’s gay screenwriter cheekily notes the cliches of his current coming-out experience, it’s surprising that one of the oldest negative trends in Queer-centric media rears its head with complete sincerity in an otherwise insightful film–the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
Various societal factors impacted how gay relationships could be depicted in mainstream media–from indecency laws criminalizing homosexual activity to obscenity laws like the Hays Production Code in Hollywood. Depictions of romance that bucked heteronormativity faced either explicit legal pressure or more implicit societal pressure to portray punishment for these relationships in equal measure. In the case of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, one or both participants in a Queer relationship met sudden death–preventing such relationships from consummation or continuation, and by extension granting their approval within a predominantly heterosexual society. In some ways, such tragic ends also romanticized the perceived taboos of Queer love by conflating orientations with the fleeting nature of both life and romance. More modern societal factors have allowed the Bury Your Gays trope to become more socially codified in media representation–for example, the AIDS crisis is used in films like Bohemian Rhapsody as an ominous shorthand for the perilous consequences of breaking free of straight relationships to pursue a gay lifestyle.
Artists like Haigh, shaped by the oppressive climates towards the LGBTQ+ community of their youth, recognize the importance of Queer voices authentically depicting these turbulent times and their modern consequences. With its shift to a gay context, Haigh’s adaptation of Yamada’s novel addresses how societal attitudes have shaped and constrained generations of gay youth. Adam’s subsequent reunion and reconciliation with his parents provides a unique catharsis that surpasses what Yamada’s original work could offer to both an LGBTQ+ and mainstream audience.
However, the film’s pointed departure from Yamada’s emotional coda, emphasizing denial over growth, unintentionally complicates All of Us Strangers’ sincere attempts to grapple with Queer narratives and experiences. It’s not that star-crossed romance is an inevitability restricted to a specific orientation–Haigh acknowledges the unfortunate universality of tragedy in remaining true to Strangers’ originally heterosexual twist. However, preserving this ending inextricably links Adam and Harry’s relationship to the narrative that Queer romance is defined by an inevitable mortality despite the characters’ attempts to confront, accept, and move beyond such tragedy. The denial of growth becomes a point in and of itself; being able to move on shouldn’t be a trait reserved for “the straights.”
This isn’t a demand that Harry should have lived. Throughout the film, the signs of Harry’s dangerously casual substance abuse are marked by Haigh and Mescal, including the Ketamine usage that takes Adam by surprise in a beautifully rendered imagining of what their life could have been like together. While HIV and AIDS are no longer the death sentences they once were thanks to the advent of PREP and other medications, substance abuse and consequential deaths remain high in the LGBTQ+ community. Including these story elements in All of Us Strangers gives further tragic verisimilitude to Haigh’s depiction of the modern Queer community, and removing them whitewashes a reality that remains a present danger to men across all generations, including both Adam and Harry’s.
Rather, I’m trying to express an extreme disappointment in Haigh for All of Us Strangers’ attempt to address and overcome the expectations, cliches, and realities of Queer storytelling in a heteronormative world and succeeding for the majority of its runtime, only to wallow in its most repulsive trope in the film’s final moments. Sure, Harry urges Adam to move on from him, and Adam acknowledges the toll his extended relationship with his deceased parents took on his life in the present. The extended beat of Yamada’s novel, in which its lead acknowledges the need to move on from all three losses, may also have been considered too explicit of a story beat when constructing this adaptation.
However, it’s not like handling such a sequence is unfamiliar territory for Haigh. In his criminally underseen Lean on Pete, Haigh deftly handles not just a character happily moving on from the trauma and tragedy that’s defined the film’s runtime, but also explicitly acknowledges how such trauma can only be managed over time rather than cured in a cathartic instant. There’s such an extensive history of Queer relationships denied the chance to thrive in fiction from both straight and gay voices, whether out of a twisted moral justification or a desire to reflect the current realities of our community. However, the risk is still the same when an ending like All of Us Strangers rears its head.
In romanticizing the most tragic turns of the novel’s ending without also depicting the emotional maturity of its final moments, Haigh squanders the goodwill the film builds up in its most tender moments; instead, we’re frozen in a cheap shot of tragic melodrama that reinforces the very expectations the film endeavors to overcome. Death is a reality for everyone, but it’s not our only reality–but ending All of Us Strangers where it does certainly helps such negative ideas live on in its audience long after the characters’ fictional demises.
What compounds this frustration to me is the reception All of Us Strangers has received since its debut. Critics have championed the heart and verisimilitude of the film, yet refrain from reckoning with this troubling conclusion. Alongside Passages and its problematic treatment of non-monogamy, it’s extremely disheartening to live in a world where the most attention-grabbing and praised Queer films are predicated on the belief that these romances, these searches for connection, are doomed to end in either emotional failure or a body count. While life and romance are fleeting for us all, why is it that some of the most visible and successful representations of Queer romances must constantly exist in the shadow of death?
There’s only so much I can say as a bi/pan critic with limited reach, but I feel like there’s a responsibility to question the cultural trends that both depict and influence the lives of both the Queer and straight audiences who watch these films. Death may historically be a part of the Queer experience in a far greater proportion to the history of straight romance, but as All of Us Strangers itself even suggests, clinging to our pasts rather than hoping and working for a better future dooms us to the certainty of tragedy.
All of Us Strangers is now playing in theaters courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.