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‘All of Us Strangers’ review: A broken heart, looking to heal, in a beautiful London-set story

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Published: January 4, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
Andrew Scott, left, and Paul Mescal in the movie “All of Us Strangers.” (Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures/TNS)
Andrew Scott, left, and Paul Mescal in the movie “All of Us Strangers.” (Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures/TNS) Photo Gallery

“All of Us Strangers” is a lovely way to begin 2024, not because it’s especially seasonal — though one key scene takes place around Christmastime — but because it’s just so beautifully acted and tenderly observant. Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s drama made a lot of Top 10 lists for 2023. I always miss two or three such films around the holiday crunchtime. The upside, with “All of Us Strangers” in limited theatrical release, is the opportunity to start the year on a high note.

We meet Adam, played by Andrew Scott, alone in a newly built London high-rise, conspicuously light on residents. He’s a writer, accustomed to solitude, and to living a cautious life mostly inside his imagination.

Lately, he has begun a screenplay about his parents, played in Haigh’s film by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, and an early close-up of a document on Adam’s laptop reads “EXT. (exterior) SUBURBAN HOUSE 1987.” As we learn soon enough, that year, 1987, changed then-12-year-old Adam’s life forever.

In his apartment Adam hears a knock; it’s Harry, another man who lives in the building, drunk and available. They have spied each other from a distance but never spoken. Played by Paul Mescal, Harry makes a pass at Adam (who’s also gay) but Adam declines, politely. In more sober circumstances, some time later after awkward small talk in the elevator, they get together. And across an unfixed, undetermined number of days and nights, their story becomes the love story of “All of Us Strangers.”

If the film were only about that story, it would serve as a fitting bookend to Haigh’s excellent second feature, “Weekend.” But it’s larger, more mysterious than that. As Adam reveals details about his fraught, long-ago relationship to his parents, who we learn early on (not a spoiler) died in a car crash, Harry becomes his lover, sounding board and romantic possibility.

Numerous times throughout “All of Us Strangers,” Adam travels by train to revisit the home where he grew up. It’s the suburban house referred to in his screenplay, located in Dorking, 21 miles south of London. What he finds there defies explanation; his parents apparently live there still, just as they were in 1987. This is Adam’s research in supernatural form; he’s revisiting not just a place but communing with the memory of his lost parents. Many things between Adam and his parents went unsaid when they were all together. As a child, Adam always knew he was gay and was bullied for being sensitive, different, “creative” — all the euphemisms and condescending code words for queer. Did his parents know what he was going through? Would they have accepted him for who he was, in the years of the AIDS epidemic? What would they think of him now that he’s an adult, coping with so much childhood loss and deeply buried emotions?

There are a couple of different ways to experience “All of Us Strangers.” It can be watched as a fluid sort of reverie on roads and conversations not taken — heartbreaking ones. It can also be watched as an exercise in subtle visual excellence. Haigh is a rare writer-director indeed, equally skillful on the page and behind his camera. As Adam falls into a trance of aching nostalgia for what he lost, the movie becomes almost liquid in its flow in and out of dreamscapes and reality. (Cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay shot the movie on 35 millimeter film, perfect for the exquisite cross-fades and dissolves Haigh favors.) Haigh used his own boyhood home in South London’s Croydon area as the boyhood home in the movie, unobtrusively color-coding the scenes to reflect Adam’s states of mind.

Dorking, Adam tells Harry early on, is “not for people like me.” A couple of decades younger (at least going by the ages of Scott and Mescal), Harry can relate, but he grew up in a less clamped-down, AIDS-ravaged time. Haigh has come up with a personal response, in the best way, to his source material, the Japanese novel “Strangers” by Taichi Yamada, built around a heterosexual scenario. Haigh’s adaptation is fully its own creation, and while it does skirt the edge of sentimentality in its final minutes, it’s true and moving en route.

Like all his first-rate work prior to “All of Us Strangers” — from “Weekend” to “45 Years” to “Lean On Pete” — Haigh’s latest brings out the best in its performers. Scott conveys a wealth of profoundly affecting sadness and resolve; Mescal matches his work with a vital portrayal full of slightly unruly lost-boy charisma. The scenes with Bell and Foy as Adam’s 1987-era parents are enough to make you weep for all the people in the world who, whether their stories are like Adam’s story or not, wonder and ruminate about all the unspoken somethings from their childhoods.

We carry those somethings with us, however long we live. Haigh, one of our very best writer-directors, has taken familiar feelings and oft-explored ideas in his own spectral direction with “All of Us Strangers.” Sad as it is at its core, it’s an inspiring way to start a new movie year.


‘ALL OF US STRANGERS’

3.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for sexual content, drug use and some language)

Running time: 1:45

How to watch: Now in theaters

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