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All Of Us Strangers' Is An Astonishment

By Jason Adams | Film | September 30, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | September 30, 2023 |


When gay people hear that we’ve got another sad movie about sad homosexuals coming for us, our instinct in the year 2023 is to groan—we have been there, and we have played that Brokeback routine out now for decades. “Queer joy” has become a patented phrase for a reason—we want, we deserve, we have earned, happy endings too. And yet Sad Boy Cinema gains a crowning jewel this year all the same with Andrew Haigh’s devastating and deeply felt All of Us Strangers, which stares the plague of gay loneliness and loss and alienation straight down, unblinking. An epic of intimacy with a staggering open wound of a performance from Andrew Scott in its lead, All of Us Strangers is so brave in its honesty we’re all left naked babes wailing in its wake.

The circuitous route that Haigh weaves to get us past our initial reservations is key to the film’s success—well that and his performers, who are all giving the best they’ve got, and when you’re talking about Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy, that’s some “best” to have indeed. Steeped in a magical realism that envelopes you almost straight away, Strangers sees Scott playing a writer named Adam who lives on a very high floor of a very nearly empty brand-new apartment building staring down the outskirts of London. Suspended in time and space, the skyline blinks in the distance, only light and color and absolute silence. This is a bubble, and Adam seems to exist within it as if in a dream.

That is until the walls begin wailing. A fire alarm sends Adam spilling out into the street one night—him and all his neighbors, which… well, means just him basically. Still, standing there on the pavement by himself he glances up at the dark building and a lone figure in a lone lit-up window catches his eye. Someone else seems to have moved in early as well, and we’ll find out quick enough that this new neighbor is named Harry (Mescal) when he comes knocking at Adam’s door later this very same evening.

Deeply drunk on expensive Japanese liquor that he offers to Adam to share with him, Mescal steers this scene like a pro between charmer and stranger danger—even as it’s a lot all at once (let me reiterate this: Paul Mescal is A LOT), it’s nearly impossible to believe that anyone would or could say no to this man standing there, offering himself up on a silver platter the way Harry does. Resistance is indeed futile under such circumstances. This isn’t just a neighborly howdy-do—this is the equivalent of Clueless’ “legs crossed towards each other.” An unequivocal sex invite. Harry puts it all out there.

And yet Adam still somehow politely declines—his flushed cheeks and perma-grin as he closes the door exposing what the charged moment meant to him anyway. And now, stirred from the bubble where we’ve been watching him sleep and stare at the horizon in a constant state of bathrobe-living—this film very much feels like a film composed during the pandemic, all about being left alone with one’s thoughts for too long—something sparks to action inside of Adam. He finds himself going out into the world. He gets on public transportation. He walks through a park. He sees a strange man in the bushes who waves him to follow. He follows the man. They talk briefly, like they’re friends, and the man invites him home. And Adam goes home with the strange man.

It only takes five seconds of “home” and of Claire Foy ecstatically greeting Adam once he gets there for us to realize that this is home home; that Foy is Adam’s mother and the man that he’s been following (Jamie Bell) is his Dad. But the strangeness of all of this persists all the same—this house, like Adam’s apartment building, seems vacuum-sealed off from time. And none of these people’s ages seem to be matching up correctly. And Adam’s parents keep talking in an elliptical way about some sort of separation between them and their son; that this is a long awaited reunion.

It’s not hard to add up from there what’s happening, if piecing it together like a puzzle is your kink. But maybe don’t waste too much time worrying about that, because the film spells it out within a scene or two since that’s not at all why we’re here or what Haigh is up to. All of Us Strangers is an inner monologue, opened up to an outward expression—it’s about a man walled up in a lifetime of pain and grief that is desperately trying to hammer through the walls and hope that he’ll find someone who understands standing there on the other side. And as such it’s one of the sharpest films about writing and writers, in that it features very little writing at all. Just an endless re-spinning of the past and the present and the future into mirrors and masks and webs and knots - hypothetical whatifferies and lustful digressions.

So when Harry and Adam bump into each other again, this time in the elevator, it’s Adam that takes the leap—clumsily, but it works. Hoo baby does it ever. Haigh’s proven previously—in his 2011 masterpiece Weekend and in his HBO series Looking—that there’s perhaps no one more capable at this moment in time in detailing the intricacies of intimacy between two men so exquisitely. And that’s on display tenfold here, with the nuclear-level heat that Scott and Mescal manage to generate under his watch. First touches and fumbles, hands hovering against thighs and sloppy, sensuous kisses—for all the talk we get lately about sex disappearing from modern cinema there are some fine folks out here who seem up to the task of holding the reins and showing eroticism’s importance still. And All of Us Strangers is a dictionary and a thesaurus’ worth of elucidation on that front.

And yet those touches, those long gazes and together times, the kindnesses that brew up between the two men, are given equal and corresponding emotional weight to the conversations that Adam begins sharing, in his ventures homeward, with his parents. A lifetime of loss and hurt and memory hovers about the triad as they rediscover one another—these scenes glow golden and warm, the green of the outside trees pressed against frosted amber glass. The word “hearth” was invented for such moments as these—Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography holds us close, quiet, calm. Suspended. All the better for the tears to flow, and flow they do. Never-freaking-ending.

The grief of an entire generation of gay men (who’ve survived multiple pandemics now) sits hard and heavy on Adam’s shoulders—and on that note there’s an illuminating conversation between Adam and Harry about the terms “gay” versus “queer” and what they mean to different generations that no straight person could have ever written. And this is why we thank the heavens for the existence of voices like Haigh’s here and now. The specificity that All of Us Strangers burrows down into—it’s become cliche to say, but he finds the universal by drilling so deep we’re watching molecules.

Adam unfurls all his aches—a father that listened to the door as he cried without coming in; a mother who never truly understood him. And his joys too. They exist simultaneously. Watch as his mother asks Adam about the loneliness of his life, in what might be the most important exchange in the film—a thousand contradictions swell in Scott’s eyes all at once. To be a lonely homosexual is a stereotype; to be lonely because you’re homosexual even moreso.

But what about the aching heart of that, the one that we bury under an outward resolve? Denial, dancing, drinking and fucking. But we all start our paths in life so profoundly alone. Our parents stare at us like alien creatures—that is if they’re not sneering and throwing us out of their house. Our classmates likewise. Queer people have to find our ways isolated, solitary—it’s gotten better, but really only somewhat. All of Us Strangers is a testament to how if we keep denying the genuine aching loneliness inside of ourselves, no good can come from it. If we demand “queer joy” only to ignore our ugly under-bellies, we’ll remain arrested, frozen in place. Echoes inside airless tombs suspended outside of ourselves. We have had so much loss and so much pain, and we can’t just wish it away.

That Haigh’s film dances with all of this darkness while weaving its magic spell, sexy and funny and strange as can be, is an astonishment. The chemistry between these four actors, each and every one of them easing out the most exhaustive truth from their every line-reading and every impossible glance, is an astonishment. All of Us Strangers is, dare I say, an astonishment. Small and fine and as big and endless as the stars and the night sky. It’s a simultaneous grappling with our history, our present, our possible futures—infinite branches of the trees aching upward as we soar past, all a’wonder.

‘All Of Us Strangers’ screened at the 2023 NYFF Film Festival. It’s scheduled for release in the United States on December 23rd, 2023.