The old adage is to write what you know. It’s a simple enough idea. If you’ve experienced something, and can remember it vividly, it’s easier to describe and put into words than something completely alien. But what about writing something you wanted to know? That’s the intriguing starting point for All of Us Strangers, a loose adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel, Strangers, and pitched as a deeply personal story for writer-director Andrew Haigh, who gave us the superb 45 Years back in 2015. An exploration of love, loss, and longing, Haigh takes a relatively straightforward ghost story and turns it into one of the most joyous and heartbreaking films of the year, anchored by a quartet of players that form a sum greater than perhaps any ensemble cast of 2023.
On the outskirts of London lives Adam (an absolutely brilliant Andrew Scott), a TV writer occupying a single’s apartment in a new and largely empty building. One night, when the fire siren is pulled, he goes outside as part of the standard safety drill and sees a light on from the only other resident in the structure, Harry (Paul Mescal in a fantastic follow-up to his Oscar-nominated turn in Aftersun). When the false alarm is over, Adam returns inside, where he’s quickly met and propositioned by a very drunk Harry. Adam rebuffs him, later admitting to himself that he should have taken the shot, as he’s a lonely gay man and he does find Harry attractive. On a subsequent encounter on the elevator, Adam invites Harry over, and the two quickly form the beginnings of a relationship.
In addition to his television job, Adam is working on a screenplay about his parents. He tells Harry that they died when he was 12, and the purpose of his script is to imagine what they’d be like if they were still alive, so he could fill them in on what they missed in his adolescence. It’s a lovely idea, taking something familiar and spinning it into pure fantasy as a way of coming to terms with grief. But the weird thing is, when he goes to his childhood home (Haigh’s actual house as a kid) for inspiration, there are his mother and father (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) ready to welcome him back. And it’s not like they’re acting as if nothing has happened. They acknowledge that they’re dead, but they carry on as if they’ve just been away for a while, picking things up after 30 years apart.
What follows is an utterly beautiful dance of regret and coping. In this old house, Adam has the chance to tell his parents what he never could, about being gay, facing bullies, and all his wonderful memories of Christmastime and sleeping in bed with them when scared, even when he was well past the age when that was appropriate. He gets to process his mental image of who his folks were, and project them into what he feels they’d be today. His mother is shocked by his coming out, not because she’s against it or anything, but because she constantly worries about him, wondering if he’ll get AIDS or ever be truly loved, as media exposure on homosexuality in the 80s — when they died — painted the issue in those very dark terms. She comes around though, because Adam is her boy, and always will be. His father, a bit tightly-wound but still loving and understanding, concedes that he had his suspicions, and was afraid to influence him, because again, back then, it was seen as a lifestyle choice rather than a biological orientation. His tearful apology to Adam for not going into his room when he heard him crying is one of the most gorgeous scenes of the year.
Contrasting that is Adam’s relationship with Harry. Through him Adam learns to accept himself as he is, as he went through similar struggles. Many gay men their age did. Apart from an extended surreal sequence that’s intentionally confusing because it begins with the two taking designer hallucinogenic drugs at a nightclub together, every moment of their budding romance is heartwarming in the extreme. That one bit does drag down the affair a bit, mostly because we’re not quite sure when it ends (and it makes even less sense in light of the film’s conclusion), but everything outside of it is sentimental gold mixed with a poignant exercise in self-examination.
This is aided by the cross-pollination of the story threads, with Adam constantly giving Harry information about his parents, then getting advice from them in turn on how to approach his relationship with Harry. There’s a truly sublime exchange between Adam and his mother, for example, where Adam tries to put a label on his feelings. He’s not in love, but there’s something there. “Do you want to be in love with him?” she asks, which is just the perfect thing to say.
All of this succeeds because each of the four give career-best performances. Any one of them could get nominated next year, and it would be wholly appropriate. None of them is rigid or easily pigeonholed, none is felled by some major character flaw. Each one lives and performs naturally within a given moment, offering flexible interpretations and opinions based on the human emotions they would or could organically feel in each situation. There’s no stock resistance to Adam’s sexuality, nor is there a rebellious attempt to force a perspective. This is an exceptional core cast delivering exceptional material with the tenderness and weight that it deserves, all leading to an ending that is as shocking and devastating as it is poetic and cathartic.
This is one of the most emotional films of the year, but it earns just about every ounce of pathos it tries to elicit from the viewer. It’s not perfect, but what it sets out to accomplish, it does at the highest level. There are other 2023 movies that try to deal with subjects like romance and trauma at the same time, but none comes close to the quality of All of Us Strangers, which keeps the focus squarely on the empathy and reality of the healing process despite its supernatural framing. The heavy use of Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film should I review next? Do you imagine scenarios where you talk to lost loved ones? Have you ever tried to find an old house you lived in to see how it’s changed? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!