All of Us Strangers review – Andrew Haigh's drama grabs you by the heart and doesn't let go – The Guardian

This deeply personal portrait of newfound love and a traumatic past, starring Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, is an emotionally wrenching masterpiece
There’s a half smile that flickers over the face of Andrew Scott, an involuntary wince of a thing, with lips clamped shut and those dark, dark eyes glittering with unshed tears. It’s technically a smile, but I can’t recall seeing anyone look sadder. The actor has a rare gift for peeling back the skin of a character with a single glance, drawing us into decades of kaleidoscoping pain and loss. It’s a gift that has rarely been put to better use than in Andrew Haigh’s gorgeous, shattering and deeply personal fifth feature film, All of Us Strangers.
Scott plays Adam, a screenwriter wrestling with a script drawn from his past. It’s not going well. Our first glimpse is of his face, reflected in the windows of his flat as he gazes listlessly at the London dusk, a wide-open sky massed with clouds as deep and dark blue as grief itself. Adam immerses himself in the music of his childhood – 80s queer pop classics by Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Goes to Hollywood – and picks through a box of family treasures that provide a link to the distant past. But he seems disconnected from the rest of the world – something that his echoing, neatly impersonal flat in a nearly empty Ballardian tower block only serves to emphasise.
Then two things happen. A tentative relationship starts to blossom between Adam and his neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal), one of the only other people living in the building. And during a research visit to his childhood home in suburban Dorking, Adam encounters his late parents (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), unchanged, unaged and still living exactly as they were just before they died 30 years ago, when Adam was a child. And while Scott acts as our emotional anchor, grounding the supernatural elements of the story, it’s worth mentioning that the entire cast is impeccable throughout.
As the connection between Adam and Harry strengthens into the possibility of a future together (scenes showing their mutual discovery of each other’s bodies are shot with a tactile, tender lens by cinematographer Jamie Ramsay), Adam is drawn repeatedly back to the past, to the unresolved trauma of his childhood. Time does not, in fact, heal all wounds. Instead, it makes them deeper and more debilitating. But if Adam can’t rewrite the moment his parents were killed in a car crash, he can, thanks to a metaphysical quirk, get to know them as an adult gay man rather than as the bruised and bullied child that they remember. “They say it’s a very lonely kind of life,” says his mother, lips pursed as she recalibrates her vision of her son’s future after he comes out to her. “They don’t actually say that any more,” snaps Adam, realising as he speaks that loneliness has been the one constant in his existence so far.
The exquisite, delicately perceptive screenplay is adapted by Haigh from Strangers (1987), a novel by the Japanese writer Taichi Yamada – the second film to have been drawn from the book; the first was Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1988 The Discarnates. Haigh has put his own mark on the story. The use of his actual childhood home as the location for the scenes between Adam and his parents underscores the emotional connection between the director and the material. There are threads that link this picture to Haigh’s earlier work too: it shares a yearning for connection with his second feature, the gay romance Weekend, and a looping sense of time and windows to the past with 45 Years, in which lives are disrupted by the discovery of the body of a long-lost lover preserved in glacial ice.
On an initial viewing, it’s the picture’s wrenching emotional impact that strikes most emphatically – during the first screening I attended, the whole row of seats shook from the collective sobs of fellow film critics. But on a second viewing, you start to fully appreciate the immaculate craft of the picture. The way the score, by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, harmonises with and complements intricate use of sound; the skill of Jonathan Alberts’s fluid editing that, with the lightest of touches, guides us between parallel timelines and a cityscape that throngs with coexisting moments from Adam’s life. It’s a remarkable achievement – a raw and potent piece of storytelling that grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.


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