Monday 5 February 2024

All of Us Strangers | review by Stephen Theaker

All of Us Strangers tells the story of Adam (Andrew Scott), a gay writer in his forties, living alone in an empty London apartment block. He writes for film, and, when he has to (as he puts it), for television. He's trying to write a script about his childhood, but struggling, so he heads back to his home town to see his parents. Anyone who has seen the trailer will know already that his parents (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) died in a car crash when he was a child. The film, however, doesn't tell you that they died until after we have met them, though one might guess from the conversation and their relative youth. Adam doesn't seem surprised to meet them, nor do they seem surprised to meet him, though they are aware that time has gone on without them.

In London, a nice chap knocks on Adam's door with a bottle of whiskey, looking for company. They are apparently the only people to have moved into the building yet and the silence is freaking him out. Harry (Paul Mescal) is from a younger generation, but bears similar emotional scars. Adam hates being called queer, because it was an insult thrown at him by bullies in the 1980s. Harry hates being called gay, because it was an all-purpose insult during the Chris Moyles era. Adam went a long time without ever having penetrative sex, because of AIDS, but for Harry's generation HIV would no longer be a death sentence and PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) drugs can prevent transmission. Though Adam understandably turns the drunk young man away at first, he later invites him over, and a tender relationship develops between them.

Eventually, Adam takes Harry to meet his parents.

I thought this was a brilliant film. Heartbreaking, but brilliant. I haven't read the novel it was based on, by Taichi Yamada, or seen the previous film that adapted it (The Discarnates), nor have I seen any of writer-director Andrew Haigh's previous work (for example on Looking and The OA), but the use of a Pet Shop Boys song in the trailer was recommendation enough for me, and the film delivered in that regard. Like Argylle, a totally different but equally enjoyable film about a writer I saw on the same day, the use of music in All of Us Strangers is terrific. Blur's Death of a Party perfectly soundtracks a nightmarish trip. Adam and his parents singing Always on My Mind around the Christmas tree made even me cry. And though Adam is fairly miserable most of the time, I still envy his visit to a nightclub where they play a classic Pet Shop Boys b-side, I Want a Dog.

From what I've read, the protagonist of The Discarnates was not gay, and he was surprised to meet his parents, who turned out to be hungry ghosts, feeding on the living. All of Us Strangers doesn't take that approach. It's almost as if his parents have been reconstructed in virtual reality for him to visit for therapy reasons, or pulled out of time just before their deaths, or kept in a bubble universe like the one where the Silver Age Superboy went on living with Ma and Pa Kent, all so that Adam's parents can meet their son full-grown, and they can say to each other all the things they never got to say. In American Fiction, yet another excellent film I saw about a writer on the same day, the protagonist's brother is gay, and his mother is unkind about it, and we see how much that can wound even an adult man. So too for Adam.

Being able to talk to his parents as an adult lets him reconnect with his past in order to write the project, but it also lets the past reconnect with him. Whether he is simply imagining how his mum would have reacted to him coming out to her, or whether it is in some sense really happening, his feelings about it are real, and wonderfully portrayed by Andrew Scott, who deserves all the plaudits coming his way. Like Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction, it's a treat to see such an intelligent, thoughtful actor, who has shone in several supporting roles, given the chance to take the lead in an intelligent, thoughtful film. Paul Mescal is equally good as Harry, his grounded performance giving the film a solid sense of reality, and a huge amount of charm. Their romance is highly believable.

On paper the film might sound a bit pat, didactic, patronising: let's drag people out of the past and get them to apologise for their outdated views! But it doesn't feel like that at all on screen. For one thing, it breaks many of the rules that a film concerned only with setting a moral standard and lecturing its audience might feel obliged to follow: it comes nowhere near passing the Bechdel test, for example, and it features a gay character played by an actor who isn't gay, which was widely declared unconscionable last year, and I'm sure someone somewhere is complaining about it featuring unwelcome tropes. It's not a lecture, it's all about character, dialogue, human interaction. It can also be very funny, in amongst the tears, and properly scary at some points.

Though I've compared it above to other films about writers I saw the same day, it reminded me most of High-Rise, about another single man going barmy in a tower block, and Bones and All, another moody, reflective and stylish film which was similarly content to point the camera at a pair of brilliant actors and let us watch their peculiar relationship develop, without telling us what to think about it. That All of Us Strangers connected with UK audiences the way it did, reaching number two in the cinema charts, feels like a very positive sign for British cinema. The relative lack of blockbusters in the early part of 2024 might have been disappointing for cinema owners, but it's been a boon for cinemagoers. Festivals aside, I don't remember a time when there was such a variety of films to choose from in my local multiplex. As the blockbusters return, I hope UK cinemas continue to make space for quietly brilliant films like this one. Stephen Theaker *****

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