From the very beginning of All of Us Strangers, we are lulled into writer/director Andrew Haigh's familiar style, and the film seems like it is going to be yet another grounded character drama from him. But rather quickly, we begin to see a new element, as Haigh dips his toe into magical realism with this film. It's not a wild departure for him, as it is such a slight step away from reality, but it is definitely noticeable. But what Haigh does amazingly is that he weaves this one detail into the film so effortlessly, and makes it feel so achingly honest. It's a great example of a filmmaker trying something new while still retaining their signature voice. With All of Us Strangers, Haigh delivers a tender, heartbreaking film about a man confronting his past and present in order to move on to a brighter future. It is a film filled with love, pain, and Haigh's intimate focus, and it is nearly impossible to feel unmoved after watching it.
Adam (Andrew Scott), a struggling screenwriter, lives a lonely existence in a London tower block. One evening, he has a chance encounter with Harry (Paul Mescal), a mysterious neighbor who he initially rebuffs, but soon begins to grow closer to. At the same time, Adam finds himself drawn to his childhood home, where he discovers that his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) appear to be living just as they were on the day they died, 30 years earlier. Adam begins navigates the complex feelings that arrive from this realization and his growing relationship with Harry, which in turn causes him to confront unresolved issues from his past and present, and hopefully work his way toward a better future.
I went into this film blind, so when it introduced the plot line with Adam's parents, I was quite surprised. This is also because the way Andrew Haigh introduces in it the film is so nonchalant that it kind of sneaks up on you if you don't know its coming. This is perhaps the secret sauce of the whole film, as it feels true to Haigh's usual style, but never feels too underplayed or heavyhanded. It allows him to add a fantastical element to the film while still delivering the specific type of intimate drama that we've come to expect from him. But through the moments that lean into magical realism, the film becomes all the more tender and emotionally resonant, as it allows Adam to have conversations and discoveries that he never thought he would have. It is something that is sure to speak to anyone who has ever lost a parent and wished that they could speak to them again, and is so beautifully executed by Haigh.
While so much of the film's most affecting moments come from the scenes with Adam and his parents, the other half of the film's heart lies in the relationship between him and Harry. The film is all about the personal baggage that keeps us from living our lives and loving others to the fullest. So much of that comes from the fact that his parents never knew the man he became, but so much of it is also through the parts of him that struggle to accept that he is gay. Through the developing romance between him and Harry, we see Adam confront this difficulty to fully accept himself, and he is able to let down the walls he has spent decades building up around himself. It is such a succinct illustration of something abstract that tends to go unnoticed, but the film lays it out perfectly. We see how these feelings and these loose ends in Adam's life have led him to where he is at the start of the film, and it makes his journey all the more compelling.
Of course, the main reason why Adam is so compelling is because of Andrew Scott's performance, which is understated and brimming with empathy. It is so hard to not connect with him, and it mostly comes from how Scott plays the role. He feels so natural, and the array of emotions he experiences come across so simply in his performance, but cause a ripple effect that allows them to hit the viewer incredibly hard. The joy, the pain, the sadness, and everything else in between is so masterfully played by him, and so deeply felt from a viewer's perspective. A lesser actor might turn the role into a more melodramatic affair, but Scott is such a professional that he immerses himself in Adam's mindset, and delivers a full-bodied performance that resonates in such a stunning way.
The scenes in which Adam is interacting with his parents are so powerful, due in part to how they are written and how Haigh frames them. However, a lot of credit is also due to Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, both of whom turn in some of their best work here. Foy is an actor who I constantly wish more people would take notice of, as she has stayed under the radar since her turn as a young Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of Netflix's The Crown. I have always enjoyed her work in everything I've seen her in since then, but her performance as Adam's mum is undeniably my favorite performance of hers yet. She is so vulnerable and delicate, but also has an energy that gets right to your heart. One of the conversations between her and Adam is especially poignant, in that it is depicted realistically and is so well-acted on Foy's part. As for Bell, this might be the quietest perfromance I've seen from him, but he is so perfectly in tune with the character and the film as a whole. He has this more serious and subdued quality that makes him seem so guarded, but the moments where he lets the walls fall down a little are some of the film's best, and Bell is so fascinating in them.
Paul Mescal has become a huge rising star over the past year or so, and this film makes it pretty clear why he has become such a big deal. While I would argue that his Oscar-nominated performance in last year's Aftersun is a fuller showcase of his talent, his strengths as an actor are on full display here. Mescal has a strong charm to him, which is used in an interesting way with in the context of this film. He is a bit more rugged compared to the other characters in the film, but you can't help but be intrigued by his general presence. He effortlessly embodies the carefree nature of Harry, which plays against Scott's more controlled portrayal of Adam so beautifully. The chemistry between Scott and Mescal is just so lovely, and the scenes they share do so much to enhance the film's ideas of self-acceptance and love.
The film has an almost staginess to the structure and how some of the scenes are written, which had me thinking this originated as a play. I was surprised to learn that this was not the case, and that it is based off a novel titled Strangers by Taichi Yamada. Regardless, the style that Haigh presents the film in might not gel with some viewers, but I personally love how intimate and deeply felt so much of the film is. It lets the film get to the heart of the matter, and makes everything we see feel so real. Even though Adam is interacting with the spirits of his late parents, it still feels so genuine and so natural that it is hard not to be drawn in by these moments. The film functions as one man learning how to love himself and others, and to be a beacon of light in a lonely world. It is something that could have easily been explored in a saccharine, cheesy way, but Haigh makes it feel so honest and has a more tender approach to everything that makes it such a strong film all around. I was so gripped by this film for much of the runtime, and the last section of it pulled the rug out from under me, leaving me both shocked and awestruck. You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel a little emotional in the film's final moments, as they are so powerful, and pulled off with aplomb by Haigh and company.
All of Us Strangers is a film that knocked me out on so many levels, as I didn't know much about it going in, but left feeling as if I had had my heart broken and mended within the span of its 105 minute runtime. It is devastating, yet hopeful, and is one of the most surprising and emotionally affecting films I've seen in a long time. There are certain details of this film that I cannot shake, and I am blown away by how Andrew Haigh was able to portray something so specific and intangible in such a stunning, concrete way. This is a film that absolutely destroyed me in the best possible way, and has such a strong, fully realized message that is so important for people to hear.