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19 January 2024

All of Us Strangers makes the personal universal

This intensely specific film shows a kind of genius for English humdrum understatement about the most wrenching matters.

By David Sexton

January may be bleak otherwise but, thanks to release dates tied to the awards season, it’s amazingly rewarding this year for films. Each week there’s a movie genuinely worth getting out for: Poor Things, The Holdovers and All of Us Strangers, with The Zone of Interest to come.

All of Us Strangers is the fifth feature by Andrew Haigh, now 50. The terrific Weekend (2011), was about two men in their twenties, hooking up in Brighton and tentatively becoming lovers, despite one being about to head off to the States. Haigh followed this with the devastating portrayal of a failing marriage, 45 Years (2015), with Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay trying to celebrate that painful anniversary. Yet All of Us Strangers – again about the search for love, recognition and identity within a specific time frame – is clearly for Haigh the film of his life.

Adam (Andrew Scott) is a mildly depressed screenwriter, in his late forties, living in a new, Ballardian tower block with views of the London skyline from its windows, and grimly anonymous inside. So far there’s perhaps only one other resident, Harry (Paul Mescal), who comes round unexpectedly one evening. Charming but pissed, clutching the remains of a bottle of prize Japanese whisky, Harry invites himself in for a drink. “We don’t have to do anything if I’m not your type,” he says. But Adam, shy, taken by surprise, demurs.

The next day, working on a new script set in a “suburban house, 1987”, Adam browses old family photos, and decides to revisit the Croydon suburb in which he grew up, Sanderstead. He takes the train – quite the wormhole in this movie. Adam’s parents died in a car crash when he was 12, but here, mysteriously, they are, in the unaltered family home, Mum and Dad (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), still the age they were when they died, relaxed but delighted to meet him as a grown man. They ask him where he’s living, what he’s doing. “It’s so bloody lovely to see you,” they say. “Come back soon, please,” urges Mum.

Back in the tower block, Adam starts writing – and reconnects with Harry, sober now. They kiss, embrace and begin to reveal themselves to one another.

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On his next visit, Adam reveals to his parents that he is gay. “As in homosexual? Really? Since when?” asks Mum, startled. “Forever,” Adam tells her. “They say it’s a very lonely kind of life,” she blurts out, still stranded in 1987, and asks about the “awful, ghastly disease”. Adam gently explains that everything is different now: same-sex couples can marry, have children, they’re accepted. Dad is less surprised. “I always knew you were a bit tutti-frutti.” They talk, Adam remembering how his dad used to tell him not to cross his legs like a woman. He asks why he never came to his bedroom when he heard him crying after being bullied at school.

Haigh handles these altered levels of reality with great finesse, making of them not so much a ghost story as a version of that perpetual situation in therapy: being always a child, with one’s parents present, in the room, as they were, saying to them what should have been said. A heartbreaking scene is incongruously set in the Whitgift shopping centre in Croydon.

All of Us Strangers is a wondrously well-acted four-hander, beautifully shot by Jamie D Ramsay, with a lovely ambient soundtrack by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, and devastatingly on-the-nose songs, as always in Haigh’s films, notably the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 Christmas number one, “You Were Always on My Mind”, and, centrally, “The Power of Love” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Haigh’s script shows a kind of genius for English humdrum understatement about the most wrenching matters. It’s an adaptation of a 1987 Japanese novel, Strangers by Taichi Yamada and radically improves upon it. The original is a more traditional Japanese ghost story, the parents and the new lover both sucking the (straight) hero’s lifeblood from him, until appeased by prayer and ritual. Haigh retains from the novel a twisted final act that some viewers may find too much, although it remains ambiguous.

But overall, he has succeeded in both making this film intensely specific and personal (the Croydon house is the one where he grew up) yet universal precisely because of that – as the change of title from that of the novel asserts. It is, in fact, another of those lockdown projects, plunging into origins, like Belfast, Empire of Light, and Bret Easton Ellis’s novel The Shards. It is much the best one so far.

“All of Us Strangers” is in cinemas from 26 January

[See also: Why make another Mean Girls?]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars