Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal are electric in Andrew Haigh's twist on the modern ghost story, adapted from Taichi Yamada's cult novel.
Since his impressive debut feature Weekend, Andrew Haigh has quietly built a fine body of work that positions him as one of the best British filmmakers working today. From the affecting 45 Years to the grim, graphic television series The North Water, he is seemingly capable of anything he puts his mind to – such as adapting Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel ‘Strangers’ into a stunning drama that is anchored by a clutch of mesmerising performances and an intense emotional core.
A sleek but cold skyscraper in Croydon is the primary setting for this Anglicised version of the source material. Screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) gazes out at the city’s orange skyline, touching from a distance; a representation of the barrier he’s put between himself and the rest of the world. He’s working on a script about his parents, who died in 1983 when he was 12, but despite mining the physical mementoes he keeps, the words just won’t come.
A chance encounter with his mysterious, charming downstairs neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal), seemingly the only other resident in the building, invites the possibility of romance into Adam’s life after years of solitude, and with it comes a strange new complication. When he returns to his childhood home in search of inspiration, Adam finds his parents exactly as they were before they died. His affable father (Jamie Bell) and doting mother (Claire Foy) greet him warmly, eager to catch up.
Their odd suburban time capsule becomes an escape that Adam takes gladly. He travels out by train to visit this reality, where his mother still makes his favourite food, and his dad plays records that his own father liked to listen to (‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’ is a favourite, while Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘The Power of Love’ plays a pivotal role that will likely usher in a new generation of fans.) The conversations Adam shares with his parents are far-reaching and complex; when his mother asks why he doesn’t have a girlfriend yet, a bemused Adam realises losing them when he was young means he never came out to them. The news forces a terse exchange with his mother where old attitudes clash with modern sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the process of reconnection seems to allow Adam to let love in. His blossoming relationship with Harry begins as a hook-up; a way for them to stave off the loneliness of living in a seemingly forgotten tower block. But slowly something between them thaws. Adam begins to open up about his parents and his lonely childhood. Harry, who speaks with a syrupy, endearing Northern accent and is forthcoming about his attraction to Adam, keeps his own troubles simmering beneath the service.
The chemistry between Scott and Mescal in their scenes is atomic; where the older is shy and cagey, Harry is impossibly worldly, and just a little bit heartbreaking as he deflects by bringing Adam out of his shell. There’s something desperately sad in Mescal’s gaze that only begins to decode as the film slips into its devastating final act, while Scott’s delicacy is worlds away from the more bombastic performances he delivered in Sherlock or Fleabag – or even in his much-lauded Almeida production of Hamlet.
Here he is tasked with portraying a protagonist who is withholding and drifting, stuck – quite literally – in the past, grieving for a life he lost, and a life he never got to live. Scott rises to the challenge, lost and lonely and lovely, a little boy who simultaneously grew up before he had to, while never quite processing his phenomenal loss.
It’s accurate to call All of Us Strangers a ghost story, but Haigh’s phantoms at the centre are far from the menacing Shirley Jackson or Henry James types. Instead, there’s a benevolence to these manifestations of insecurities and anxieties; they are avatars of conversations that were never had, and time that was up too soon. One of Haigh’s great strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to foster deep connection between the audience and his characters, and the searing ache of losing a loved one is beautifully captured here.
But so too does Haigh capture the catharsis offered by processing one’s pain, and learning to see your loved ones – particularly your parents – as human beings, flawed and fallible like anyone else. Such a painful excavation is profoundly moving and often wrenching, but also tentatively hopeful, suggesting peace only comes from learning to live with the melancholy of missing someone, and to embrace connection where you find it. It’s a ghost story, but it’s a love story too. One that will break your heart.
Published 1 Sep 2023
By Paul Weedon
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