All of Us Strangers

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All of Us Strangers, Andrew Haigh’s first movie since the atypical Lean On Pete, sees him back in familiar Haigh territory – with a twist.

“Familiar” means an intense, almost claustrophobic, relationship-focused drama, but the twist comes from the way Haigh tells his story. It’s a spooky, old-fashioned ghost story. Not, note, a haunted house story (though there is a haunted house in it). Nor is this a horror movie, though psychological horror lurks somewhere in the background.

It’s a ghost story of MR James variety, a style of storytelling that’s having a bit of a moment in UK movies right now – see Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter for something on fairly similar ground.

If it’s the genre of the moment, these three – Haigh and his stars, Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal – are men of the moment. Haigh’s huge breakthrough film was 2011’s Weekend, which followed two men over 48 hours as they negotiate the nursery slopes of a relationship. He worked a similar vein with his next, 2015’s 45 Years, about a husband and wife negotiating the après ski of a long marriage.

Both Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal are in a similar place. On TV Scott has been walking on air since he played Moriarty in Sherlock, then became the “sexy priest” in the show Fleabag, before getting rave reviews for his Hamlet on stage. Twenty-years-younger Mescal arrived with a bang on TV in Normal People, then went on to the West End stage and got rave reviews playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (no mean feat with Marlon Brando lurking in the background), then starred in last year’s word-of-mouth smash, Aftersun.

In a simple bit of set-up that’s typically Haigh – two characters and a milieu delineated in simple bold strokes – he sets these two men off on a compressed romantic journey, from meet-cute in a corridor, to initially tentative but soon intense relationship behind closed doors.

Harry and Adam talk in bed
Harry and Adam

Then does the same in a supernatural realm when Adam, memories stirred by the semi-autobiographical research he’s doing for a piece he’s writing set in the 1980s, goes back to the old parental home and finds that his parents, who died when he was 12, are there waiting for him, as if he’d just come back from school.

How or why this happens is never explained. Adam simply finds himself back at the family home, with Mum (Claire Foy) and Dad (Jamie Bell), just as they were – sweet, concerned, suburban parents, who are now younger than him. They seem dimly aware that they are dead and he is still alive, but above all they want to hear his news. How has his life turned out? Is he married? Does he have a girlfriend then? Why not?

It’s a plot turn which allows Haigh to introduce personal elements to a story he’s adapted from Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers. The meetings between Adam and his parents are filmed in Haigh own old family home in Croydon, and Adam is a writer of screenplays who grew up in the 1980s…

It also allows Haigh to draw distinctions between the gay 1980s and the queer 2020s, which Adam is slightly less at home in than he’d probably like to admit. Back at the parental home, in his old bedroom with his Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Goes to Hollywood albums, that’s where his emotional centre is.

How tenderly it’s all done, with an almost feverish human focus. If the scenes between Adam and Harry have that quality, it’s the ones between Adam and his mother that actually have the biggest kick. Claire Foy is magnificently maternal and yet also girlish as the mother dealing with the young son now evidently older than her, while Scott displays his gift for creating an intimate performance that forces the viewer to lean in.

There are no special effects, no weird dissolves, no tricks whatsoever. When Adam wants to go back to the past, he simply takes a train out of the metropolis and back to the suburbs. Haigh instead leaves the score, by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch to work the magic, and its twinkles and magic sprinkles have the effect of one of those shimmering dissolves “back to your childhood… childhood… childhood” of old.

The DP is Jamie Ramsay, who reinforces the hot-breathed atmosphere with close-ups, shadows, warm pools of inimate light. How interesting that Levienaise-Farrouch and Ramsay also worked together on another film adapted out of Japanese, Living, the 2022 version of Kurosawa’s Ikiru starring Bill Nighy. Both are tender, bittersweet and intensely humane works.

I watched this at a small, packed cinema where not a sound was uttered during the whole film, apart from the laugh when Andrew Scott’s Adam enters his parents’ bedroom in the night unable to sleep and he’s wearing some absurd pyjamas that are clearly too small for him. For the rest of it the audience sat transported by Haigh’s intensely poignant ghost story. Transfixed, in fact.

All of Us Strangers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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