ALL OF US STRANGERS

★★★★★

AN ASTONISHING GHOST STORY OF INFINITE BEAUTY, SADNESS AND WISDOM

BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
12th November 2023

When we consider the notion of a ghost story, we likely think of them as works of horror, stories designed to send shivers up our spines and keep us awake at night. These have become the dominant form of such stories, often riffing on the notion of unfinished business as a drive to cause distress and demand retribution. As I've gotten older though, and as comes with age, I've begun to accumulate a collection of my own ghosts, and come to realise that this definition of a ghost story is frustratingly closed-minded. If we remove the supernatural from the equation, or the Judaeo-Christian notion of a life after death, what does a ghost story become? Rather than being about the dead, it becomes about the living, about the notion of something having passed on (whether that be through the death of a person, the death of a relationship, or some larger cultural or social passing), and the unfinished business sits within those left behind - words unsaid, promised unkept, possibilities that have faded away with the quiet delicacy of a sunbeam. In her book 'Queer/Early/Modern', Professor Carla Freccero describes how this "spectral being and doing open us up to porous, permeable pasts and futures - suffused with affect and its ethical implications - that enable us to mourn and also to hope." In these kinds of ghost stories, ones like 'Call Me By Your Name', 'Aftersun', 'The Souvenir', 'Petite Maman', even 'The Fabelmans', the unfinished business is our own, and the haunting offers the opportunity to resolve what we long to make peace with.

For a queer person, these hauntings extend beyond just those people and relationships that have passed, but also the sense of self. It's not a far stretch to describe the pre-coming out or pretransition queer self as a kind of ghost, a deeply haunted child persona of a self that no longer exists, the memory of whom leaves a lasting imprint. In 'All Of Us Strangers', the latest film from beloved British filmmaker Andrew Haigh ('Weekend', '45 Years'), that ghost is made manifest for writer Adam (Andrew Scott, TV's 'Fleabag'). He looks into the window of his childhood home and sees a boy staring back at him. It may or may not be an image of his younger self, the ghost of him as a child, but the memory of his younger self sits heavily in that moment. Not only does he (possibly) see a spectral image of the boy he was, but a reflection of the man he has become and the gulf of time and experience in between. In every way, 'All of Us Strangers' is a ghost story, a carefully considered tone poem of a man in the act of communing with the losses that have shaped him. Rather than aiming to send shivers up your spine, it instead carefully, gently shatters your heart.

Living in a mostly-empty new apartment building in London, Adam is attempting to write a screenplay about his parents, both of whom died in a car accident when he was 11. He finds himself drawn back to the town he grew up in and the house they lived... only to find both his Mum (Claire Foy, 'First Man') and Dad (Jamie Bell, 'Billy Elliot') living there once again, appearing just as they did in the days before they died. They warmly invite him in, offer him a cup of tea and ask him about everything they've missed in his life, reopening memories Adam has long locked away.

At the same time, he also finds himself connecting with and becoming intimate with Harry (Paul Mescal, 'Aftersun'), the only other person living in the apartment building, a younger man who brings his own sense of loss and confusion. As Adam continues to explore these two new relationships, visiting his parents and sharing space with Harry, parts of himself he had long suppressed begin to emerge and old wounds are finally allowed to heal.

'ALL OF US STRANGERS' TRAILER

It's hard to know how to talk about 'All Of Us Strangers' in the context of a formal review - the experience of it feels too raw, too personal, too potent - except perhaps to say that seeing this film was one of the most profoundly moving, deeply affecting experiences I've had in a cinema in many years. Unlike the sudden rush of realisation that came at the end of 'Aftersun', I felt my heart coming apart bit by bit within the first 15 minutes of this film, first as its premise became clear and then as the consequences of that premise began to play out. My hands in my lap began to grip each other harder, my eyes began pouring with tears, my body began to tense. At points, I was so overwhelmed that I could barely breathe, gasping for air, holding back sobs, the sounds of my sorrow mixing in with the sounds of sorrow from others all around me. We dream of such an experience, for a film to open something within us and allow a torrent of truthful emotion to rush forward. I won't go as far as to say that everyone who sees this film will feel similar; that would be foolish. For me, 'All Of Us Strangers' achieved what only great art is capable of - offering a catharsis the spectator hopes for and leading them to a catharsis they didn't know they needed.

The film is loosely based on the 1987 Japanese novel 'Strangers', written by Taichi Yamada, though with his adaptation, Haigh has recontextualised the premise to a gay man living in London rather than a heterosexual man living in Japan. This allows him to draw on his own experiences, and as intimate as all of Haigh's work has been, 'All Of Us Strangers' has that quality of specificity that comes with the central artist revealing something about themselves. It shimmers with an emotional honesty that's equal parts moving and confronting. He also foregoes the more supernatural elements of the novel, never feeling the need to explain how Adam is able to see and speak with his parents or how the interior of his family home has resurrected itself. This works entirely in the film's favour, making it clear from the beginning that questions of logic do not apply here. We are occupying a space of the impossible, of the metaphorical, where the effect of this haunting is more important than its practicalities. It all happens so gently, so incidentally - a beckoning from across a field, a door opening, a warm hug as if this meeting were long expected. Haigh isn't interested in histrionics or banal lines of question. Like all his work, he's far more invested in emotional truth, and what the premise at the heart of 'All Of Us Strangers' offers is the opportunity to reach an even greater level of emotional truth than a traditional drama could offer, where what has long haunted Adam is able to come to light, and words can be spoken that never could have been before.

Back in the home he once occupied as an 11-year-old, Adam feels incongruous, out of place, taking up more space than he feels he should. Visually as well as emotionally, we feel how much time has passed, how different a man he has become than the one these four walls had expected him to be. He is no longer 11, but back in the embrace of his parents and his childhood home, he finds himself needing to be that age once again, to sit in that memory in order to understand it and grappling with how its sudden end has shaped him. This becomes the central drama of these visits with Mum and Dad, unpacking the conversations that he would have had if they had lived - about his career, about where he lives and, more importantly, about who he loves. If this is all really happening, if Adam really is sitting across the kitchen table from his Mum or in the lounge with his Dad, both much younger than he is now, then the chance to have these long longed-for conversations is a kind of miracle. If this isn't happening though, if this is simply Adam imagining how he might have these conversations if he could as he delves into an imaginative writing space, then the effect is just as overwhelming and even more heartbreaking. He is communing with the dead, sharing his true self with them, hoping against hope that they will accept him, dreaming of the words he needs them to say and fearing the words they might say instead. A pair of scenes see Adam confronting the most fundamental queer experience, and each is so emotionally thunderous that you can hardly bear it, the way they batter at your heart. We've seen these conversations so many times in so many queer films, but never like this, never suffused with so much longing and loss and hope.

Sitting in the dark, watching them play out across that white screen through movements of shadow and colour and light, I felt the memory of those conversations in my own life, felt the weight of how they shaped me and, more so, feel the presence of those I never got to tell. I remember when I was 22, a very dear uncle suddenly died, and I still have no idea whether he ever knew I was gay. It weighed on my mind all the way through his funeral, how I suddenly wished I could tell him and have him know me wholly before he suddenly wasn't there anymore. In 'All Of Us Strangers', Adam finds himself with the chance to do just that, to reach towards that catharsis. Maybe it isn't that Adam is haunted by the ghost of his pre-coming out self. Maybe he is still caught as a ghost, in purgatory, unable to untether himself from those years, and now, with his parents sitting across from him, he may be able to leave this ghostly self behind.

Sitting in the dark, watching them play out across that white screen through movements of shadow and colour and light, I felt the memory of those conversations in my own life, felt the weight of how they shaped me and, more so, feel the presence of those I never got to tell.

Adam is stuck in stasis, a self-imposed loneliness in his small yet orderly apartment in this large yet empty building. He is alone, not because he has been rejected or outcast, but because it is safer, and as time has gone on, that loneliness has become an armour. We sense this immediately when we meet Adam at the start of the film and watch his routine habits around his flat. We also sense immediately, when Harry unexpectedly knocks at this door, that this other man, much more gregarious and much younger, carries a similar loneliness. By virtue of circumstance, Harry's isolation is much more embryonic. As we learn, his estrangement from his family isn't a consequence of rejection but an act of self-preservation. He feels he is a stranger in his family, and that it is better to simply remove himself from that community than feel, as Rose puts it in 'Titanic', like he's standing in a crowded room, screaming at the top of his lungs, with nobody looking up. That feeling of not belonging, of feeling adjacent to life rather than integrated into it, is a theme that runs through all of Haigh's work. Queer people have been conditioned to feel like incongruous puzzle pieces, not always actively rejected but still hard for their straight friends and family to fully understand. We sit outside of the heteronormative framework that governs so much of our society, and sometimes it it easier to walk away than feel perpetually out of place.

This comes at a cost though, something that Adam has learned to suppress and that Harry, too young and lacking the tangible keystones that Adam possesses such as the HIV/AIDS crisis, does not have the language or skills to deal with. Their relationship is a slow, careful negotiation, Harry offering his hand gently but desperately, longing for connection, and Adam pushing through the plaster he has wrapped around himself for protection. They find themselves in the walls of Adam's apartment, in exploring each others' bodies like a torch in the dark, in moments of intimacy where words carry an ocean of meaning. If the scenes between Adam and his parents are the major events of 'All Of Us Strangers', the moments between Adam and Harry are our moments of breath, our chance to take stock in what has been shifting, not just in Adam but in us as well. The consequences of that self-imposed isolation with come to pass, but not before they find the possibility in connection and intimacy.

While so much of the action in 'All Of Us Strangers' is built around intimate conversations, at no point does it ever feel static. Each moment of revelation feels tectonic, each as overwhelming as the last, each moving with the certainty of something needing to break. This fantasy cannot last, Adam cannot live forever in the moment before he lost his parents. These little moments of catharsis are simply the preparations for the ultimate catharsis, like the initial tremors of a volcano before it finally erupts. As Adam's reality begins to slip and his grasp on himself starts to fail, we see the risk that comes with communing with our ghosts. It is one thing to sit for a moment in our past, but it's another to be caught living in it, existing in it. True catharsis, the true resolution of our unfinished business, only comes when something finally passes on. When that inevitable moment comes in 'All Of Us Strangers', so much more complex and so much bigger than you ever expect it to be, it does so with such aching quiet, such deep and unrestrained sadness, and such infinite, compassionate wisdom. I sat there in my seat and sobbed, feeling the pain of every heartbreaking goodbye I've ever been through, every devastating goodbye I wished I could have said but never did. And more than anything, feeling the sense of responsibility as, like Adam, the one left behind, the one holding those experiences delicately in the palms of your hands, whispering to them and nurturing them in the infinite.

To step back from the emotional and the personal in my response, I have nothing but praise for the many parts that make up this exquisite film. Haigh's screenplay is beautifully sparse and breathtakingly honest, his direction delicate and uncompromising. Jamie Ramsey's cinematography is a dreamlike symphony of colour and reflection, moving so easily from the smooth artificiality of Adam's apartment to the nostalgic glow of his family home. Jonathan Alberts' editing moves so carefully, knowing when a moment needs the space of time and yet allowing for confusion and chaos when the film needs it. With the four central performances, no amount of praise could possibly be enough. Paul Mescal is so achingly beautiful from the moment he appears, so much so that neither we nor the camera can take our eyes from him or not fall helplessly in love with him. Jamie Bell, quietly one of the greatest actors of his generation, gives maybe his finest performance since 'Billy Elliot', an astonishing portrait of fatherly love and tenderness. The same can be said of Claire Foy, breathtaking in her ability to navigate the heart of Adam's pain with great honesty and enormous tenderness. And Andrew Scott delivers the performance that will define his career, so imbued with loss and longing and need and fear and love. He breaks your heart over and over again, and each time feels all the more vital. Haigh could not have assembled a better cast if he tried.

In the week since seeing 'All Of Us Strangers', it hasn't left me. I can feel it sitting in my bones, just behind my eyes, nestled in my heart. I long for these moments, when everything falls away and you feel like the whole world is holding its breath, coming to a stop as this film plays before your eyes. Like the best ghost stories, it haunts you long after it is over, and like the greatest ghost stories, it never leaves you. Carla Freccero writes that "the past is present in the form of a haunting", and in this film, that notion becomes all too palpable. In its delicate wisdom, a wisdom it imparts as it gently takes your heart and soul apart piece by piece, the past is always present, its hand resting on your shoulder or on your forearm, whether that be as a memory or, as Adam sees or imagines, through an impossible moment of resurrection. We carry those ghosts with us with every step, and part of the journey forward, away from those heartbreaking goodbyes, is learning to carry them with us. Andrew Haigh has found, through his poetic grasp of the language of cinema, his pursuit of emotional honesty and his carefully-framed queer lens, a way to express the inexpressible in a manner that is wholly unforgettable. 'All Of Us Strangers' is a miracle, maybe even a masterpiece, a statement on love to last the ages, perhaps the best film of the year.

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