All of Us Strangers (2023, dir. Andrew Haigh) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 26, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 105 mins

UK Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

UK Release Date: 26 January 2024

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN ALL OF US STRANGERS?

Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, Jamie Bell, Carter John Grout

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Andrew Haigh (director, writer), Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Sarah Harvey (producers), Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (composer), Jamie Ramsay (cinematographer), Jonathan Alberts (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A writer (Scott) contends with the ghosts of his past…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ALL OF US STRANGERS?

Ever since Bruce Willis’ spiritual revelation in The Sixth Sense, the whole “they’ve been dead this whole time” twist has been a last-ditch resort for writers who are desperate to insert some kind of dramatic stinger into their stories, even if it’s at the expense of its own plausibility. However, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers – itself based on the novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada – is one of those rare cases where the eye-rolling twist is put to incredibly powerful use, in an exceptionally moving drama that explores the ghostly corridors of loneliness and grief with unprecedented profundity.

Set in London, Adam (Andrew Scott) is a screenwriter who lives alone in a new-build block of flats, where he appears to be one of only a handful of residents in the building. He soon makes a connection with his neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal), which quickly leads to a much more intimate relationship, through which we learn a bit more about Adam’s past: when he was a boy (Carter John Grout), both his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) were killed in a car accident. It is something that Adam is clearly still contending with, to a point where he frequently travels to his old childhood home in Surrey where – to his, and the audience’s, surprise – his parents, looking no older than the day they died, welcome him with open arms.

It’s at this point where All of Us Strangers enters an interesting state of magical-realism, with Andrew Scott’s Adam clearly experiencing a supernatural situation with these figures who are unmistakably his late mother and father, exactly how he remembers them when he was a child. Their ghostly presence is a source of comfort for Adam rather than one of fear or remorse, with them – or, most likely, him imagining them – lending some warm and even tearful retrospectives on their short time together as a family, for which Haigh’s writing goes to some hard-hitting places in order to convey. It is a testament to Haigh’s strength as both a writer and a director on this film that the narrative gimmick never comes off as cheesy or contrived, and instead allows for the viewer to get inside the mind of its deeply troubled protagonist to explore his inner feelings of sorrow and loneliness that are beautifully, and heartbreakingly, honest in their execution.

The film is an emotionally tough watch, but in the best way because it gets into some tender themes that are designed to feel like an absolute gut-punch on impact, but even when it seems like it’s beginning to lean over the edge and dive head-first into pure melancholy, it manages to pull itself back with a grounded approach that can often be quite funny. At one point, Adam has a conversation with his mother’s ghost about the fact that he is a gay man, and since she died around a time when homosexuality was nowhere near as accepted as it is in the present, her attitude to her adult son’s news is hilariously in line with the typical parents’ response from around that period. However, Haigh never manages to disrupt the overall tone with its lighter moments, keeping the focus purely on the psychological and paranormal journey of self-acceptance that Adam, who is in virtually every scene of the film, is going on, with the filmmaker knowing exactly when to bring out the heavy artillery with certain sequences that may well have you reaching for the tissues.

So much of the emotion that leaps right off the screen is made possible by an excellent quartet of lead actors who all give some of their best-ever performances underneath Haigh’s direction. Andrew Scott is truly magnificent in a role where he brilliantly conveys his character’s isolation through the smallest of inflictions, in addition to nailing his far more emotional scenes to where you almost want to reach into the screen and just give this guy the biggest hug you can give. He has very good romantic chemistry with Paul Mescal, whose mysterious presence makes him a potential wild card for events later on, and shares an equal amount of tenderness with both Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, who (outdated 80s mannerisms aside) are both deeply effective as the kind of parents you always wished that you had. The combined performances generously lend plenty of emotion to Haigh’s narrative, which makes All of Us Strangers feel so much more powerful than it already is.  

Having been trapped in personal feelings of loneliness quite a few times in my life, I found this movie to be extremely poignant, since it taps into that never-ending fear of eternal isolation as well as the upsetting distress surrounding it, doing so in a way that is never forceful or beyond the realm of possibility. Even with its supernatural form of magical-realism, the film feels so real, with emotional residue that keeps me thinking back more and more on it long after the initial viewing. It’s by far Haigh’s strongest overall film, with the perfect balance of steady direction and grounded writing to zoom it past the finish line, and in terms of films where main characters see dead people, it might even pip The Sixth Sense with its overall impact.

SO, TO SUM UP…

All of Us Strangers is a deeply moving drama about the universal human feelings of loneliness and grief with a heart-wrenching foray into magical-realism that never becomes contrived, only adding to the powerful emotion that director Andrew Haigh’s script and four excellent central performances effortlessly provide.

Five out of five stars

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