‘All of Us Strangers’ Review: Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal Break Your Heart in Andrew Haigh’s Sublime Masterpiece

Telluride 2023: A rumination on grief and love, Haigh’s poignant and understated ghost story is one of the best films of the year

Andrew Haigh wants to caress your spirit with his delicate and unassumingly poetic “All Of Us Strangers.” It is an otherworldly rumination on grief, love, loneliness and trauma, as well as a sophisticated ghost story that takes a page out of Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” for anyone carrying around a baggage of unspoken sorrow.

Caress your sprit Haigh does, for a while, with the kindness we come to expect from the lyrical British filmmaker of “45 Years”—a swelling account of the blind spots of a marriage—and “Lean on Pete,” an aching meditation on Americana on the fringes which, in a just world, would have been as widely celebrated as its closest thematic companion, the Oscar-winning “Nomadland.”

One of the most tender storytellers of our time, Haigh then pulls something else out of his magical sleeve in due course. Just like he did with those former aforesaid gems, he decides to break your vulnerable heart as well, not out of cruelty, but to gently heal it and make it whole once more, chips and cracks be damned. Watching his “All of Us Strangers” feels like growing up and maturing in real time as Haigh’s sensitive characters, loosely rooted in Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel, move through life at their own pace, feeling a little lost, then a little found, and back again.

Played with down-to-earth grace and tranquility by Andrew Scott (“Fleabag,” “1917”), his screenwriter Adam is somewhere between those two lost and found planes, carrying within him a soul too colossal, beautiful and scarred to stow in his small, soulless apartment in a contemporary and cookie-cutter high-rise of London. As stunning as the views of golden sunsets and sparkling city lights are from Adam’s living space, Haigh makes sure that we take notice of the coldness of the interiors, too—all glass and metal, with eerie, dimly-lit hallways binding the building’s units together.

There is a certain, reserved restlessness to Adam when he unwillingly steps outside upon hearing the building’s incessant alarm bells. It is then that he runs into Harry for the first time, played by a wounded, wonderful Paul Mescal (“Aftersun”), one of the most mesmerizing young actors working today with his hypnotic handle on subtle emotional shifts. Harry is drunk and visibly hungry for contact—that much we gather when the duo’s hands touch after a cordial greeting and he lingers his on Adam’s just a second too long. Adam closes the door after rejecting Harry, who pretty much begs to step into Adam’s space, plainly offering himself up to Adam to no avail.

Adam has other preoccupations, like ruminating over old photographs, one of which inspires him to take a train to the suburb he used to live in. His parents—called just Mom and Dad, played affectionately by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell with a haunting dose of enigma—have been long dead due to a tragic car crash when Adam was just 12 years old.

But they are there now, young and standing like an ‘80s polaroid came alive, with Mom wearing a sweet perm and both sporting understated ‘80s fashions that costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop carefully calibrates throughout. “Is that him? That’s him,” the parents decide, recognizing the grown-up Adam from his eyes. The evening feels cozy and filled with love, so much so that when Adam finally has to leave, he makes a promise to come back for a visit.

Haigh gorgeously braids those visits with Adam’s later encounters with Harry, who is quick to apologize for his blunt behavior from the other night. Romance comes swiftly to both and a relationship soon ensues—casual lounging in each other’s company, pizza nights in front of the TV, dizzyingly sensual sex, and nights spent in clubs when they finally decide to take their togetherness out into the world.

Shooting on 35 mm film, Haigh and his cinematographer, Jamie Ramsay (of the dazzling “Living”), benefit immensely from the intimacy of film stock throughout these scenes, both grounded and dreamy like a hazy, wistful memory. Their poignant visual palette especially soars when Adam spends more time with Mom and Dad, and as nostalgia slowly bleeds into reality. We learn through reflectively written exchanges in Adam’s two lives—with Mom and Dad, and with Harry—growing up gay in the ’80s and ’90s hasn’t been easy for Adam. Perhaps not malicious, but definitely a product of their time, Mom and Dad haven’t provided him with the best support.

We sense both pride and a hint of inquisitiveness when Adam tells his mom that he’s gay, longing for his parents’ acceptance once and for all. “But aren’t people mean to you?” his mom naively wonders. “And that awful, ghastly disease,” she continues, coming to accept only slowly that things are different now in the era Adam lives in. Back in London, the conversation with Harry around Adam’s sexual identity rings different, with Harry being the product of a different generation. He uses the word queer to define Adam but Adam quickly asserts he feels more comfortable with the word gay instead of what he calls the “polite” version, perhaps because his life contained a period where he had to fight for the right to that identity.

In a lot of ways, “All Of Us Strangers” is a poignant, deeply melancholic exercise on the attempt to bridge the past with the present, a cosmic inquiry into resolving all that was unsaid through second chances that never were. Once Adam’s parents start to put up Christmas lights in one scene—basically, the very night that they were killed—we thankfully know that they’re unreservedly proud of the man Adam has become. But will that be enough for Adam? Will he be able to let go of the new comfort he’s found in his old, painful childhood domain? And where would the secretive Harry, who has his own set of traumatic experiences, fit in his search for peace and release from the past?

Masterfully, Haigh brings the story to a close with a soul-shattering reveal, which might not be that surprising at all to some who managed to meet “All Of Us Strangers” at Haigh’s celestial, empathetic level throughout. Regardless of your own journey with the breathtaking finale, this sublime film aims to drink you up, stir you and send you back out in the real world equipped with something new, a spiritual potency you haven’t had before. It’s a masterpiece.