There’s something inherently a little unsettling about a tower block. And that’s particularly true of the glistening edifices of modern London, with enormous windows, uninspired furnishing, and even less personality than a geography teacher convention. In Andrew Haigh‘s new drama All of Us Strangers, one of these tower blocks becomes pure purgatory – a cavernous liminal space in which two lonely men are trapped, at least until they can find each other.
Haigh simply doesn’t make noisy films. With the likes of Weekend and 45 Years, he has proven adept at telling smart, human stories about relationships at very different stages. In some ways, his work lives in those liminal, uncertain spaces. All of Us Strangers, which combines Haigh’s trademark thoughtful humanity with lashings of ghost story, is no different and is as fascinating as it is desperately painful.
The story begins with Adam (Andrew Scott), who initially seems like a bit of a filmmaking cliché – the lonely screenwriter struggling to put pen to paper on his most personal work yet. One night, he gets a knock on the door and an offer of a drink from the already slightly sozzled Harry (Paul Mescal), who appears to be the only other resident of the near-empty block. Harry’s just as much of a mess as him, but while Adam is a quietly festering wound of grief and isolation, Harry is the romantic ideal of a disheveled free spirit – at least on the surface. So actually, it’s a little surprising when Adam closes the door in the stranger’s face, despite the palpable crackle of sexual tension between the two men. What follows is a smart, subtle exploration of a man wracked with guilt and grief trying to work through those emotions with the help of the green shoots of romance. But as well as the romantic drama stuff that Haigh has always been able to do with real nuance, All of Us Strangers is also a ghost story, reflecting its source material – Taichi Yamada‘s 1987 novel Strangers. Throughout the movie, Adam visits his deceased parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) who exist in a nostalgic ’80s homeostasis of how he remembers them. It’s a world bathed in festive fairy lights and soundtracked by the Pet Shop Boys and news bulletins about the AIDS crisis.
There’s a fascinating generation gap between Adam and Harry’s experience of gay identity, reflecting the 20-year disparity between the actors in real life. In one scene, Adam explains to an uncomprehending Harry that he still has a certain fear around sex, having grown up at a time when news reports demonized sex acts between men as a death sentence. Harry’s solution to his loneliness is to throw himself into new companionship, whereas Adam is far more wary – like a timid tortoise unsure whether to emerge from the safety of its shell.
Scott carries all of this subtlety with tremendous skill in by far the best performance of his career to date – sadly unrecognized by the Oscars. Physically, we can see Scott change between the scenes with Harry and the scenes with his parents, as if Adam is trying to literally become his 12-year-old self to have the conversations with them he never had when they were alive. Unfortunately, Mescal gets less to do. He’s a manifestation of an alternative lifestyle for Adam and, given the film’s clear focus on its protagonist’s perspective, we only ever see Harry through this lens. That doesn’t stop Mescal from continuing his golden run of stellar performances, finding shades of Harry’s internal pain to peek between the facade of easy-going youthful hedonism he shows to Adam. There’s no stopping Mescal being brilliant, as anyone who still hasn’t finished crying at Aftersun will be able to tell you.
The scenes in which Scott and Mescal share the screen are by far the strongest and it’s almost a shame that they aren’t the core focus of the film. But the story we get instead is fascinating, focusing squarely on Adam as he excavates the edifice of grief he has become trapped in over the years. Foy and Bell do decent work as the parents, but this is Scott’s show and he completely runs these scenes.
Initial reactions to All of Us Strangers focused heavily on the gut-punch emotion of its finale. There’s certainly a big swing or two in that final movement but, for me, the movie worked better when it was operating on a more micro level. It flies in its quieter and more subtle moments, lifting the lid on ideas of grief and the internalized guilt of growing up gay in an era when it was very difficult to be anything other than straight.
The movie is yet another terrific calling card for Haigh, who is increasingly joining the A-list of British filmmakers. He’s reaching the stage where he can almost make whatever movie he wants. Let’s just hope he chooses many, many more like this.