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Louise Okafor

All of Us Strangers review — heartbreaking, but essential viewing

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers.

On the surface All of Us Strangers is about Adam (Andrew Scott — Fleabag, Sherlock, His Dark Materials), a London-based screenwriter suffering from writer’s block and his attempts to push on with the screenplay he’s trying to write about his parents, but it quickly develops into so much more than that. It’s about family ties. About love lost and found. It’s a story about belonging and being on the outside. 

It’s also a story about the UK. Its humor, regional accents and most of all its culture. This is a movie that’s steeped in 1980s pop culture references — Adam constantly watches Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Pet Shop Boys on Top of the Pops reruns or sifts through old vinyl records of Erasure and Wham! As he continues his research for his screenplay — or so he says. The more the film goes on, the more it appears Adam’s research is purely personal.

All of Us Strangers is also a story about gay lives and the monumental shifts that have taken place in government policy and social attitudes since the 1980s. These are big themes, but this film takes each weighty topic lightly, making them familiar and weaving them into daily life.

From the moment we see Adam, in his London flat, scratching around for something to eat from the half-eaten takeaway collection in his fridge, struggling to finish the opening sentence on his latest screenplay and reluctantly trudging out to the front of his building when the practice fire alarm goes off, we can understand he’s a lonely soul. Just how lonely and repressed he is, is only made clear when Harry (Paul Mescal — Normal People, Aftersun) appears — knocking at his door, completely drunk, offering Japanese whisky and desperate for company. Adam clearly would like to let Harry in and say yes — to whisky, to his company and more. Much more. But he’s too tightly wound, says no and spends a restless night overthinking his decision. 

From there the movie does a sudden pivot, as it does from time to time, disorientating the viewers, and we’re in rural South London (not a contradiction in terms), Sanderstead, to be precise and Adam’s lurking in fields outside his childhood home. Eventually, he’s approached by a handsome, mustachioed stranger. But instead of this being another sexual come-on, it turns out to be his father (Jamie Bell — Billy Elliot, Rocketman) who asks him to come home and meet his mother (Claire Foy — The Crown, A Very British Scandal). But everything is strangely frozen in time — their clothes, car, home decor, and talking points are all from the late 80s.

As Adam shuttles to and fro on the train between London and Croydon, we woosh back and forth between storylines. Croydon, where Adam and his parents slowly get to know each other again exploring key moments from Adam’s childhood that have obviously proved traumatic for him. Switch to London and, in their modern (yet strangely empty) apartment block, Adam and Harry start to develop a romantic relationship that is forthright and yet tender.

The performances in this movie are outstanding. Andrew Scott shows tremendous emotional range as the man stuck in a rut, trapped by events from his childhood, yet heart-wrenchingly willing to open himself up to love and be loved. That performance has already been recognized with a Golden Globes nomination for Best Actor and there’s every chance he’ll get Oscar and BAFTA nominations too. Paul Mescal has a smaller but critical role as Harry — sensitive, yet earthy and with an energy that starts to unlock Adam’s carefully constructed barricades. Mescal creates layers of character and meaning with tiny changes of expression and tone of voice, a small glance away — when talking about his difficult home life — it’s another performance to match his Oscar-nominated turn on 2022’s father-daughter film, Aftersun. Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, as Adam’s parents, take parts that could be sentimental and mawkish and make them warm and believable.

And yet, despite the superb cinematography, soundtrack and those sterling performances, this movie doesn’t quite hang together. While Adam’s blossoming relationship with his parents feels warm, and loving and is lovely to witness, its warm suburban feel (with cups of tea and flapjacks) is totally at odds with the gritty, queer love story (with oral sex, ketamine and leather bars)  in London. In another movie, the fact that Adam has these two different sides of his life might be the point of the story — a conflict to explore and, maybe, to resolve. Here, however, there’s a third (mystery) element in Adam’s life that overshadows the other two. It’s not really explained how or in what form Adam is spending time with his parents who, he explains early on, died in a car crash, when he was 12. Is it part of his screenwriting method (pure imagination), is he ill/dreaming/dead, or is this a supernatural narrative? Does Adam see dead people? Trying to unpick that conundrum understandably undercuts the other storylines and left me slightly unsatisfied. The final coda, though, was so powerful it almost pulled it back to the full five stars…

All of Us Strangers is out on general release in the U.S. and its U.K. release date is January 26, 2024.

Note: One of director Andrew Haigh’s first movies (Weekend, 2011), from more than a decade ago, treads similar ground. It captures the strange beauty of two strangers finding themselves in each other and how love can elevate you to heights you’d never dream of. I highly recommend that film as a companion piece. 

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