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All of Us Strangers ★★★★

Availability: Showing in limited theaters nationally; widely available streaming, on AppleTV, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and elsewhere. See JustWatch here for complete streaming options.


If Only….


“Fallen Leaves,” “Perfect Days”—and director Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers.” Three of the nominees for 2023’s Best International Feature Oscar evoke Henry David Thoreau’s line from Walden: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” But Adam (Andrew Scott, the hot priest in television’s “Fleabag”), the protagonist in Haigh’s powerful drama, does not suffer from any of the maladies that for Thoreau lay beneath those desperate lives.


Harry (Paul Mescal), one of the two occupants of a modern London high-rise, reads Walden, where Thoreau wrote, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."





A writer, Adam is not subject to a grinding routine; he cares little about money or possessions or status, values Thoreau decried; and he has plenty of leisure time—maybe too much. Yet desperate he is, and in a way that inverts Thoreau’s dictum. While Thoreau sought relief from mid-19th-century middle-class commercialism in the bucolic isolation of Walden Pond, Adam is virtually alone in the world, one of only two residents in a high-rise apartment building, its sealed windows shutting out the sounds of London life. Adam’s quiet desperation.


It's not long before Adam is joined by the other building resident, Harry (Paul Mescal, the high school hunk of the Irish TV series “Normal People”). They take their clothes off, and the desperation abates as the film seems to segue into a more comfortable “gay men find each other” mode. “Are you mostly single?” Harry asks Adam, who replies “yes.” And so is Harry, although as he notes, “not for lack of trying.”


The sexual chemistry between Harry (Mescal), left, and Adam (Andrew Scott) reveals itself quickly.









 

Adam is haunted by his past as a gay youth in a straight era and in a straight family.

 

Harry’s presence is comforting and therapeutic, but Adam needs more than his new-found companion can provide. Although he lives in a present that tolerates, accommodates, and even celebrates homosexuality, Adam is haunted by his past as a gay youth in a straight era and in a straight family. He needs family therapy—kindness with a modicum of truth-telling—and he gets it, “Field of Dreams”-fashion. Centering the story is a series of encounters and conversations with his parents (Claire Foy [“Women Talking” 2022] and Jamie Bell [Billy Elliot in 2000], both perfect in their roles), who died in an automobile accident when he was 12. As corny as that sounds, these scenes are touching, poignant, revealing of Adam’s experience, and more powerful and emotionally satisfying than the father’s monologue in 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name.” His mother confesses her belief that no parent wants this (being gay) for their children; his father recalls awakening to the issue when he saw his son couldn’t throw a ball; Adam remembers his father’s repeated admonition not to cross his legs.


To write his screenplay, Adam (Scott) encounters his parents, who died when he was 12. Father (Jamie Bell) and mother (Claire Foy).


Haigh borrowed the idea of the writer meeting his long-dead parents from a 1987 novel by famed Japanese writer Taichi Yamada (translated into English only in 2003). His adaptation does much more with the basic plot by exploring the trauma of loneliness, through the stories of two gay men.

 

 “I’m at the edge,” Harry says. “I’m a stranger in my family.”

 

As important as they are in their own right, the conversations between Adam and his parents clear the way for Adam’s deepening relationship with Harry, the lower floor neighbor, who isn’t the stable figure he appears to be earlier in the film, though he has a capacity for empathy that Adam requires. That empathy derives from Harry also suffering from being on the margins. “I’m at the edge,” he says. “I’m a stranger in my family.” Scott and Mescal are astoundingly good in their characters’ exploration of their own pasts, their own loneliness, their gayness, and their coupling.


Harry (Mescal), left and right, and Adam (Scott), center, are the only two occupants of a London high-rise, yet they find elevator talk a strain.


The film’s final scenes, focused on Adam’s enigmatic line “I should have let you in,” complicate the plot retrospectively, some would say unnecessarily, raising the possibility that Adam’s relationship with Harry, like the conversations with his parents, occurred only in Adam’s imagination, with horrific consequences; or, less likely, that what we see in Harry’s bedroom is Adam’s fantasy of what could have happened had he not let Harry in.


Mother (Foy, perfect in the role) tells Adam no parent wants their children to be gay—it makes life too difficult. Or it did when Adam was 12.






However one interprets those final moments, “All of Us Strangers” is a beautiful and riveting film, a fascinating venture into the heart of human—and gay—loneliness, seen through four stellar acting performances and at least one and perhaps two fantasies, and complete with a message as universal as it is different from Thoreau’s warning of “quiet desperation”: relationships are “subjunctive”—that is, conditional, a function of the proverbial “if” or its close relative, “if only.” If one doesn’t act, the moment may be gone, spiraling away, never to be recuperated. What Adam could have done with his mother and could have experienced with Harry—if only Adam had “let him in.”


 

Date: 2023

Director: Andrew Haigh

Starring: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, Jamie Bell

Country: United Kingdom

Language: English

Runtime: 105 minutes

Other Awards: 25 wins and 105 nominations, including 6 BAFTAs; though critically well-received, “All of Us Strangers” was snubbed by the Oscars (no nominations) and shut out of awards at the BAFTAs.

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