ALL OF US STRANGERS. A Dream Within a Dream [REVIEW]
Director Andrew Haigh takes us into a world where dreamy fantasies dangerously merge with reality, past traumas throw conflicting interpretations into a spiral of what is true and what we desperately want to be real. In this incredibly sensitive, intimate, almost sensual drama, reminiscent of Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” we journey deep into the minds of exceptionally sensitive individuals, studying suffering and loneliness, soothing and healing the repeatedly torn wounds of the protagonist, experiencing our own form of inner cleansing. The dramaturgy of unfulfilled expectations, lost love, and lack of mutual empathy strikes dramatically and mercilessly, though for these just under two hours, we move to the rhythm of All of Us Strangers subtly, almost silently, and the creators bombard us with the greatest emotions in the most unassuming and symbolic scenes.
The setting sun outside, the same television program playing in the background ad nauseam, another package of microwaved food. Adam’s (Andrew Scott) evenings, closed-off and neurotic, are painfully repetitive and painfully lonely. In the apartment he recently moved into, there is only one other person living, but even surrounded by neighbors, Adam would still choose the life of a recluse. Unexpectedly, this one man from the sixth floor seems genuinely interested in connecting with the artist. However, on the night when Harry (Paul Mescal) offers him the best Japanese whiskey and pleasant company, Adam once again retreats into a cocoon of shyness, masking his lack of skill in romance and rejecting the chance to meet someone new. Instead, he boards a train and ends up in his hometown, in the family home, where his mother and father, frozen in the 80s, welcome him as if nothing had changed. The catch is that both of them have long been deceased, and Adam is treated almost like that 11-year-old boy they orphaned on the day of a tragic car accident. Is it possible that the deceased have returned to their son from beyond the grave? Is Adam’s vision of theoretically dead people a result of delusions, psychosis, or perhaps an unstoppable longing and grief for time not fully utilized? In this difficult journey through new versions of memories and imagination, Harry supports him, whom Adam eventually decides to give a chance. For the first time in a long time, the boy shows him what true attachment and care are, but for Adam to call what connects them love, he still has a lot to work through and mature about. How deeply has his unhappy childhood shaped who he is now? And if time could be rewound, familial superficial relationships warmed, and retribution given to schoolyard bullies who made him ashamed of his own identity—would everything unfold differently?
Based on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s novel, the story first penetrates us from within, exploring and enveloping painful memories, only to unexpectedly deliver a blow from which there is no recovery. The full spectrum of emotions with the most sparing means—initially insignificant, but only after the last heart-wrenching minutes do they gain full significance. Through his characters, Andrew Haigh expresses perhaps repetitive yet moving confessions from the perspective of LGBTQ+ individuals, for whom despite the passage of years, hate, lack of acceptance, or ridicule persist, not only from strangers but, as we see in the case of Adam and Harry, from their own parents. Upon deeper acquaintance, both decide to open up to their partner and the audience, laying bare all the struggles they faced as queer men from early childhood. Harry, although much more entertaining and laid-back than Adam, turns out to be an equally wounded, internally battered child in an adult’s body, but like his beloved, he long ago learned to live by masking his true emotions, often burying them in alcohol and drugs.
This is why Adam persistently returns to meetings with his parents, embarking almost every evening on a journey into the arms of loved ones, whether it exists in the real dimension or only (or until) in his imagination. In the home he was forced to leave after the death of his closest family, he seeks the support that was insufficiently given to him at that time; he seeks nights where his father, instead of avoiding confrontation with his sensitive son, will come to him crying into his pillow and say that he accepts him as he is. He seeks a pretext to escape reality, which he clearly cannot cope with—how can one live and enjoy the present, find within oneself the depths of love to give to another person when the past has left so much pain behind?
All of us Strangers emotionally and visually captivate us. Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography is captivating, intense, immersing us in this abyss of neon lights, strong lights, just as Adam immerses himself in his nostalgia and pursuit of lost childhood. Andrew Haigh, responsible for direction and screenplay, doesn’t create a groundbreaking and incredibly original story, but serves the audience with a nuanced puzzle-like film, combining a hot romance with psychological cinema and elements of fantasy, which in the final post-screening analysis impress the viewer enormously. The scene that encapsulates the essence of what All of us Strangers truly is, is Adam’s holiday visit to his family home, where his mother and father, humming Always on My Mind while decorating the Christmas tree, show their son full acceptance for the first time—what he desperately needed but never received as a child. All of us Strangers is a journey-film, a road-film, a penance-film, where tension slowly matures, threads intertwine in spacetime, in which we ourselves must find our way from a certain point. In his characteristic manner, the director does not serve us ready-made answers but leaves ample room for interpretation as to why Adam forms relationships with ghosts, where Harry unexpectedly came from in his life, and ultimately, what we draw from the absolutely beautiful, symbolic final scene between the lovers.
Speaking of the magic of this production, one cannot fail to mention the magic between the two main actors—Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal. The latter seems to be already a specialist in tender, complicated, and intimate productions, after experiences in “Normal People” or emotionally tearing “Aftersun” to pieces. His character in All of us Strangers is confident, charismatic, electrifying on one side, yet still harbors a panicked fear, which makes him akin to his partner. This is another great role for the young Irishman, but in the clash with Andrew Scott, Mescal definitely takes a back seat here. The actor known from “Fleabag” steals the entire film, creating a character permeated with suffering, incredibly sensitive, spiritual, wandering somewhere within himself, trying to find his way in this strange mixture of truth and delusions, from which he himself seems unable to escape. The parents of Adam, played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, also have a smaller but significant role here. The scene of their last farewell in the restaurant, the dialogues between parents aware of their own death and their despondent son, strike strongly and permanently, probably becoming the most charming, directorially and acting-wise perfect moment throughout the film. Especially striking is the Scott-Foy duo, whose chemistry and magnetism are palpable, making it difficult to look away from them.
Refined, spiritual, sensual, and visually stunning. This is how we can summarize Haigh’s latest work. Although we are not dealing with a particularly sophisticated screenplay—the story of two outsiders who fall in love with each other, after all, has been seen many times—All of us Strangers accurately examine societal hatred and prejudice, present both in Adam’s parents’ time and unfortunately still thriving today. For the LGBTQ+ community, it is undoubtedly an important, even obligatory film. However, it deeply enlightens everyone about how minor taunts, mistakes, and stereotypes can weigh on someone’s entire future life. Adam is partly a symbolic hero, encapsulating the life story of most queer individuals, who often spend their entire adulthood dealing with traumatic memories of intolerance and psychological violence. It is extremely valuable that films like All of us Strangers are made, receive well-deserved recognition (including nominations for Golden Globes and BIFA), and hopefully reach the widest possible audience.
This heart-wrenching SF drama will grip you—if not by acting, if not by cinematography, then surely by its sensational musical mix, including the spiritually cleansing finale with the song “The Power of Love” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It is for such final scenes that one goes to the cinema—for such empirical, philosophical dramas we wait for years.