All of Us Strangers Review | The Power of Love

by Andrew Parker

Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers – an achingly beautiful meditation on love and grief – is the best film of the year and one of the decade’s absolute finest. A psychologically dense, uniquely nostalgic, poignant, and obviously personal effort, All of Us Strangers hits with the force of a shooting star colliding into the earth, but in lesser hands it could’ve been little more than tearjerking twaddle. With this reworked adaptation of Japanese writer Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel, Strangers, Haigh takes a granular and finely detailed look at uncomfortable emotions, conflicted feelings, and regrets that everyone experiences at some point in their lives, while simultaneously paying tremendous respect to his protagonist’s singular situations and perspectives, and all without belabouring the material or resorting to unnecessary cinematic shorthand. By the time it concludes, All of Us Strangers has felt less like an exemplary motion picture and more like a transformative experience.

Creatively and emotionally struggling screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) lives in a metaphorical bubble by choice and circumstance. His flat is located in a brand new building that seems to be populated by only one other person. He spends his days trying to write about his parents, who passed away in a car accident when he was twelve. Adam whiles away the hours watching trashy reality television and old music videos from his 80s childhood, not really getting much work done and only occasionally gazing out onto the bustling city skylines that seem so far away from where he’s at. A pair of unlikely developments find Adam opening up more and more. First, he begins paying visits to his dead parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), who appear to be stuck and time and still living in Adam’s suburban childhood home. Eventually, he also begins a romantic relationship with a younger man named Harry (Paul Mescal), the only other resident of Adam’s building who just so happens to also be gay.

A great film should work on multiple levels at the same time without distracting the audience by constantly pointing to every element like they’re being underlined and displayed under a burning spotlight. With All of Us Strangers, Haigh (45 Years, Lean on Pete) subtly folds each emotional and narrative layer together with the dexterity of an origami artist. As a reflection of a person wrestling with profound, deeply rooted emotions and traumas – many of which are being fully broached for what seems like the first time – All of Us Strangers plays like a ghost story of the mind; a place where past and present meet and inform each other with equal relevance. There’s a welcome amount of restraint and subtlety in Haigh’s storytelling, but no shortage of telling style. Adam’s world is tidy, cold, and slick on the surface, which suggests a somewhat successful career at one point in his life that has somehow metastasized into an almost hermit-like existence. Something has triggered Adam’s need for reflection (which is nicely portrayed on a visual level throughout), but it’s not up to the viewer to fully analyze the person in front of them. All of Us Strangers is a film about the fraught, lengthy, and sometimes painful steps one has to take in a search for delayed closure.

All of Us Strangers plays out effortlessly between the past and a theoretical present. It almost shouldn’t work, but Haigh’s relaxed, imaginative, and thoughtful approach makes the otherworldly concept easy to buy into. Adam explores a variety of scenarios he wishes he got to experience with his parents, and like the most tragic of fantasies, all of it feels very real to him. Adam is pining for an era he was robbed of experiencing: that moment in life when an adult child (in this case, an only child who has no one other family to share in his joy and pain) is accepted by his parents as an autonomous human being. Adam never got to share with them the joys of a new relationship, work frustrations, and long held secrets. He also never got a chance to tell his parents that he was gay. There’s no making up for lost time in All of Us Strangers, but in its place comforting and sometimes confrontational fantasies stitched together from a life plagued by “what if’s.”

Adam’s relationship to his parents is well reasoned and conveyed. Haigh shows their traditions, favourite haunts, and long simmering petty squabbles and takes them all at face value, never judging, and always holding these people with utmost empathy. Intriguingly, while Adam has moved on in life to become a functional adult, this interplay with his mother and father lovingly captures the heartbroken child that still remains under the surface and wants proper acknowledgment and care. Haigh’s depiction of stunted adolescence brought on by unexpected trauma is nothing short of groundbreaking. It’s tender and mature without sacrificing childhood wonder or the big emotions one experiences more often in their younger years.

The romance between Adam and Harry also pulls no punches. It’s a passionate, explicitly queer sexual relationship across a noticeable age gap that also showcases a tremendously intimate emotional bond. The chemistry between the two characters is undeniable, but Haigh finds a way to make their conversations about life and loss even sexier and heart-swelling than the physical stuff. A great conversation could be had as to whether or not Adam is getting more out of a chance to converse with a lover who seems to care deeply about what he’s going through or reconnecting with the spirits of the parents with whom he never found closure.

Through it all, Scott gives Haigh a full-on career defining performance. While he has been a strong performer for a long time now, All of Us Strangers contains the sort of turn that is lightning in a bottle, and one that curiously offers up more and more detail when watching the film on more than one occasion. Scott portrays Adam as someone finally learning to be honest with himself and those around him. It’s a portrayal of grief and acceptance that’s both sad and unusually charming. Adam sheds plenty of tears around his parents and while opening up to Harry, but Scott also brings keen senses of levity, joy, and wonderment that helps to fully flesh out the delicate, almost fantastical tone Haigh is trying to achieve. All of his cast-mates make considerable impressions and bring their very best – a case of perfect casting – and Scott’s leading turn always ensures that the bar for excellence is set astronomically high. All of them deserve praise: Bell for his hipster dad, Foy for her confused and always questioning mother, and Mescal for taking on the almost impossible task of portraying someone great at listening and making them into a compelling character. They match Scott beat for beat, making his performance and Haigh’s efforts land perfectly.

All of Us Strangers focuses on a specific sort of recurring, hypothetical conversation that everyone who has experienced a tremendous loss asks themself. What if there was more time, and what if that time just happened to be right this moment? What would we say, and would we ever want that moment to end? Does it ever stop hurting or are we doomed to feel this way forever? Haigh has no concrete answers, nor does he need to present anything. All of Us Strangers is a depiction of emotional states that are hard to put into words, guided by a filmmaker and cast willing to take viewers by the hand and let them know that even if things aren’t okay, they won’t be that way forever, no matter what the past and present whispers in the ear about the future. To say this is a picture that stays with viewers is an understatement.

All of Us Strangers opens in select theatres in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on Friday, January 5, 2024, expanding to additional locations in the following weeks.

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