Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers has brought about some of the most impassioned responses of the festival season. It is certifiably 2023’s preeminent tear-jerker, a fantastical uber-catharsis for its characters that stretches a universality in its themes of sexuality and loss to the point that it would be difficult for anyone, of any persuasion, to avoid the inevitable lump it plants in your throat. Maybe its greatest credit is that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who couldn’t have their heartstrings pulled out of whack at several points of this intimate drama.
Following a muted screenwriter who you wouldn’t necessarily call repressed but certainly unfulfilled, Andrew Scott’s Adam sits at the centre of a film where forces past and present close in on a character who seems to have found a rhythm that he can cope with, one that lasts him through day-by-day even if his anxiety around love and heritage seems to clearly wrack his brain. He isn’t a figure of repression but instead, one of suppression, believing that perhaps the only way for him to break down the walls he has forged around him for years is through a screenplay he seems more afraid of than he is inspired by. Through the screenplay, an exploration of his relationship with his absent parents, Adam wallows in solipsism as we observe in various states of morose procrastination, using his television as a means to push through the hours of the day before he can theoretically return to his soul-bearing writing the next day. This self-destructive routine is interrupted by Harry (Paul Mescal), a pretty mensch of build and beauty who would seem cad if he didn’t present as so endearingly sincere. As Adam and Harry come closer together, Adam inches closer towards the past, in the form of his complicated parentage, which doesn’t merely haunt his days but has ultimately ruptured his identity.
Scott navigates the unobscured pain of Adam with a restraint that doesn’t only feel like a brilliant progression from some of his larger roles in blockbusters such as Spectre (2015) and Sherlock (2010-17) but is also scaled back from his popping performances in Pride (2014) and Fleabag (2016-19), where his innate and quite insatiable charm drove his screen presence. In All of Us Strangers Scott, in a nearly Fassbender-esque way, uses every muscle and sharp feature of his face to communicate a thousand emotions through a blank expression, making the eventual breakdown of his fragile stoicism all the more powerful. He plays a wonderful contrast to the now sort of immutable Paul Mescal, a flamboyant and tender man who on his surface seems totally nested in his identity, sexual or otherwise. However, underneath he is just as wrapped in unresolved history and tension as Adam is.
You might notice I’ve been incredibly plot-light so far; the film’s premise is rather simple, its fantasy thinly veiled, and none of that is meant derogatorily. Claire Foy and Jamie Bell play Adam’s, shall we say, ‘old-fashioned’ parents, and it’s in this space of the film’s metaphysical narrative that the film can either land on top of an emotionally invested spectator ready to bawl, or instead land like a grand piano whose every key is erroneously predisposed to crush you under the heaviness of its mighty tragic weight.
The film’s second and third acts follow an effectively telegraphed formula, hopping between Adam reconciling with his demons in both temporal spaces of hallucinatory past and present, finding joy in environments that had previously made him anxious in the past. The parental throughline of this elegiac and maudlin romance drama is maybe its most overwrought strand, following a routine sequence from scene to scene that seems to primarily make observations about the familial relationships it depicts rather than penetrate beneath these narrative functions.
Perhaps the standout performance in the film is actually from Jamie Bell, playing Adam’s considerate but deficiently attentive father who never asked quite the right questions. He radiates a warmth in his person and a regret that he could’ve been more understanding of an experience he clearly isn’t familiar with, feeling way more realised and less of a caricature than Adam’s mother played by Claire Foy. Bell’s father feels like a man of a place in time without ever feeling like an old boy caricature. His flagship scene next to the grown-up son feels like a personal conversation between two people deeply connected to each other trying to bridge a gap in time and sensibility with attentive affection.
Unfortunately, Claire Foy as the mother brings a cliché and datedness to the film that its other achievements so intelligently subvert, harming the film’s holistic sentimental integrity due to the fact that so much of Adam’s catharses rests upon the shoulders of a terminally misjudged character. Her scenes of coming to terms with her son’s sexuality, largely predicated on her concerns re procreation, most resemble a soap opera trying to introduce a new subversively diverse queer plotline into its 36th season in their cheapness.
Instead of calling them ‘scenes’, it actually feels more apt to call the scenes with Foy and Bell ‘set pieces’. Choreographed, pre-emotionalised, calculated sequences with all the pre-meditation and desire to engage that a stunt sequence in a Mission: Impossible has. Thus, the film’s insistency can sometimes manifest into insincerity despite the warmth of its central romance.
All of Us Strangers feels like a film of weight rather than depth, one which sells itself too hard on the expulsion of its angst rather than the consolidation of its anxieties. Haigh has made a film about deeply felt emotions told through its gut rather than its mind, meaning that it is more an exercise in anguish than it is in existence. All of Us Strangers is ravishing, at its most captivating when exploring the emotional and physical intimacy between its complexly illustrated men. Unfortunately, it juxtaposes this accomplished tenderness in its 1st plot line with a languidly rendered parental story that suffocates the film’s transgressions. It’s a film that is so impressively interrogative of the interiorities of one facet of its narrative, making its other pillar all the more frustrating in its scant whimper. It is caught in a crossroads of its own creation; between the rawness of its romance, and the confection of its nostalgia rather like its protagonist. Adam struggles with his screenplay to make much sense of his past, and I think that All of Us Strangers punches through its complications without ever quite wrestling with what haunts its undeniable beauty.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor