“I’ve always felt like a stranger in my own family.”
All of Us Strangers is an incredible film, with each piece, from the acting to the script working to create the kind of magical cinematic experience that’s rewarding in every way possible. One aspect in particular in which the film soars is cinematography. Jamie Ramsay’s lensing of the film’s two distinct worlds is so sublime, that it’s easy to feel transported onto the screen and into the space the characters are inhabiting. This is not surprising since all of writer/director Andrew Haigh’s films share this trait. Be it 45 Years or Lean on Pete, there isn’t an effort the filmmaker has created that didn’t have the kind of look that makes whatever film the audience is watching come across like a piece of art. At a time when other higher-profile films will be given accolades in this area, I felt that before I heap praise onto it, I commend All of Us Strangers for being one of the most richly shot and exquisite-looking films of the year.
Based on the novel by Taichi Yamada, All of Us Strangers follows Adam (Andrew Scott), a single screenwriter living alone in London. Frustrated by his writer’s block, Adam decides to take a train ride to the town he lived in as a child until his parents’ death. Once there, he finds himself transported back in time and encounters the ghosts of his father (Jamie Bell) and mother (Claire Foy), who are still living in Adam’s childhood home. Meanwhile, in the present day, Adam starts to develop a romantic relationship with his neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal).
The way Haigh guides his audience into the past is so gentle and subtle, that you don’t even notice the switch right away. Beginning with the way Adam’s father finds him in the park (almost like he’s a lost little boy), everything in the world that was left behind feels so authentic, it makes us yearn for the fantasy at hand to be real. Finding his parents right where he left them at the exact time they died takes Adam for a loop at first, but he very quickly embraces the fantasy by realizing that in his mind they haven’t aged and they never will. It’s so beautiful to watch the conversations Adam never got to have with his parents play out as he is able to find closure at long last and allow himself to finally have the moments that were taken from him, both the sweet ones and the hard ones. None of this would work as beautifully and believably as it does here were it not for Haigh knowing how to move past the initial “gimmick” (for lack of a better term) and focus on the beauty and truth of the moment at hand. The filmmaker also knows it’s just as important for Adam’s parents’ ghosts to unburden themselves on their son, thereby giving their souls peace. All of it makes for a collection of stellar exchanges in some of the best scenes of the year.
It’s interesting to see Adam’s existence in the present altered by his visits to the past. From the film’s early scenes, we recognize him as a somewhat fractured individual who is simply doing the best he can. With Harry’s introduction into Adam’s life, so much is understood about both of their realities. We see the difficulties of connecting as well as the struggle between wanting to connect and not knowing how. Both Adam and Harry represent prime examples of a specific generation of gay men who largely only had themselves to rely on, emotionally, at least. These are men who lived with a need to be held, a need to be seen, and a dominating fear of both those feelings. All of Us Strangers takes great care to show how such a fear can be spurred by the kind of trauma and grief both Adam and Harry have experienced in their own ways. It’s also in the present-day scenes where the “strangers” of the film’s title becomes the clearest, referring to the collection of gay men whose families never knew them, could never possibly know them in the way other “strangers” like them could. In so many ways, Haigh’s film belongs to them, to that generation of gay men who were lost at one point, and especially to those who were never found.
Scott’s portrayal is what makes the two sides of All of Us Strangers work. The film has such a strong emotional throughline that can only work if it moves like a freight train. In Scott’s hands, it does thanks to the way the actor gives himself to the material, allowing all of his character’s pain and regret to wash over him. Bell and Foy are both given deceptively complex roles, which they master by playing their characters’ reality as a reality and responding to Scott with such beauty and groundedness. Finally, Mescal invests so much into Harry, exposing his weaknesses and fragility so much, that the character becomes an important part of Adam’s journey, rather than just a peripheral figure.
When Adam has to lose his parents again, it’s almost too much to bear despite also knowing how necessary it is for the character. This realization is the biggest testament to Haigh’s talents as a storyteller. In what has become his trademark, the director manages to touch his audience in a very quietly human and organic manner. With a mesmerizing score and seamless scene transitions, All of Us Strangers does well by balancing its haunting nature with the kind of tenderness that feels safe and familiar in the best of ways. Regardless of anyone’s opinions on ghosts and the afterlife, most will (and should) find it incredibly hard not to give into the catharsis and elegiac qualities of Adam’s experience, especially those who wish they could have one of their own.