Review: All of Us Strangers
by David Katz
- Andrew Haigh’s latest takes his filmmaking into a more expansive realm, in this story of a lonely writer and his sources of inspiration and hurt
All of Us Strangers [+see also:
film profile], in its essence, is about a man who can commune with the dead. Adam (Andrew Scott) has this capacity through two means: his creative imagination, through his profession as a film and TV screenwriter, can furnish speculative scenarios derived from real life and those he once knew; and also his faltering mental health, making his reality testing go awry. He’s recently moved to a newly built tower block in rapidly gentrifying East London, where he seems overly reliant on leftover Chinese takeaway and the lure of junk TV. Yet, being a single gay man, he seems to have a strange hesitancy about obvious ways to allay his solitude, such as apps, and the small matter of his downstairs neighbour Harry, played by Paul Mescal.
Premiering at Telluride, before moving onto the New York Film Festival and now the BFI London Film Festival, All of Us Strangers snaps Andrew Haigh’s film career back into focus, after the less successful and widely seen Lean on Pete [+see also:
film profile] and The North Water. In a week where we lost his great British predecessor Terence Davies, we can commend Haigh as a true poet of British gay life, and perhaps a melancholic commentator on it, too. For All of Us Strangers, to twist the fashionable idea of “heteropessimism” (google it!), is quite despairing on what has and continues to afflict gay men, and is sympathetic and sensitive, but never uplifting, affirmative or even empowering, as is the contemporary fashion in queer cinema.
It’s also good to see a film about an unhappy, blocked writer that doesn’t make you cringe (although we’ll always love you, Nicolas Cage in Adaptation). Early in the first act, Adam clicks open Final Draft and writes “EXT. SUBURBAN DRIVEWAY”, and with Haigh’s oneiric method of telling this story, most of what transpires afterwards could be the tale of an unreliable narrator. Yet the hurtful details and well-observed characterisations of his parents (played well by Jamie Bell and especially Claire Foy), convince us that he’s harvesting something very personal: namely their early deaths in a car accident, and their uncomprehending homophobia. We see Adam literally “going home”, taking the railway back to the suburbs, as a physicalisation of his writing process; what he sees feels like a triggering embodiment of the “straight” world of the late '80s, heavily discriminatory as opposed to openly abusive.
With its method of narrative suspension and uncertainty, All of Us Strangers is far more plot-driven than the director’s breakthrough works Weekend [+see also:
film profile] and 45 Years [+see also:
Q&A: Andrew Haigh
film profile], sometimes to its detriment. The final 40 mins or so provide a panoply of new story revelations that wear away at his script’s prior subtlety. Perhaps being made for an American mini-major in Searchlight (of course, now owned by Disney), rather than A24 or UK public money required a slightly more ticking narrative movement, which pays off as few viewers will be unengaged. Yet an undeniable overwrought quality sets in, especially in the culmination of the Mescal character’s strand, that ironically risks distancing us from it all and making us less inclined to buy Haigh’s grand directorial and structural choices. Yet otherwise, this is a beautiful film that sadly concludes that there’s no love apart from the tough kind.
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