Sunday, January 7, 2024

All of Us Strangers (dir. Andrew Haigh, 2023)

Because I’ve already written at length here about my three favorite films of 2023 (Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseScrapper, and The Unknown Country), it makes sense to begin 2024 with a post about the film that I’d been anticipating the most this past year, but that I couldn’t see until it was released here in Boston in the new year at the end of the first week of January: Andrew Haigh’s latest gay cinematic exploration All of Us Strangers. While the movie wouldn’t quite have made my year-end Top 3 list anyway, I was still affected by the film, especially the earlier three-quarters of it. In loosely adapting his screenplay from the 1987 Japanese novel Strangers by the late Taichi Yamada, Haigh takes wide liberties to make the story serve his own narrative’s purposes. The result bends and expands conventional boundaries of gay-themed storytelling for the most part, a unique mixture of romantic fantasy and bleak realism that’s lingered with me even while not entirely convincing me of its aesthetic fortitude.

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal star as two gay men living in a nearly abandoned high-rise tower block in London, and the two gradually become involved as they realize there’s not really anybody else around to lift their feelings of loneliness, a commentary both on contemporary urban malaise and the solitude of being a single gay man living in a sprawling cityscape. The movie’s tone and tactics operate on several levels as a form of magical realism; it’s a love story in which the passage of time slips backward and forward, as well as a ghost story in which the dead can fairly freely commingle with the living. The net of that device gets cast suddenly wider as the film moves toward its sad and gentle finale, after plumbing the depths of a serious childhood trauma that Andrew Scott’s character Adam, a writer who’s struggling to mine that exact material for a new screenplay, has endured for years but never fully outgrown.

Early in the movie, Haigh uses a clever device to draw us into Adam’s closer inspection of the tragic loss he faced at age 12. After he takes a train to the outskirts of London, a seeming cruising encounter on a suburban heath with a handsome man who beckons to him from the trees turns out soon after to be his own deceased father, at the same age as when he would have died, coaxing Adam through a kind of time portal to come back to his childhood home. Adam’s father and mother were lost in a fatal car accident, so he’s able through the intervention of these ghosts to re-examine his past wounds and converse with his parents about what his life has become since their death: as a creative artist and as a single gay man who at age 46 has just begun a tentative relationship with Paul Mescal’s younger and somewhat less conflicted character Harry. Jamie Bell and Claire Foy are excellent as Adam’s parents, stuck in time yet earnestly reaching across decades to try to comprehend how the world has changed since they exited it during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, in a time before being a gay man in the United Kingdom had become a more mainstream phenomenon.

Andrew Haigh orchestrates the maneuvers of his central ensemble quite admirably throughout, directing the film with a delicate grace that maintains just the right amount of distance, giving Andrew Scott especially the space that his carefully calibrated performance requires to go where it needs to go. Scott keeps us intimately by his side as audience members, with the camera often gazing closely at his face, which makes the more emotional scenes work overall. It’s worth pointing out that the “flashback” scenes between Adam and his parents were filmed in the same Croydon house that Andrew Haigh himself had grown up in, so there’s an authenticity to how the three characters begin to re-connect and discover their tensions, empathies, and occasional disconnections from one another. Throughout all of it, Adam is returning to Harry at their empty tower block in London, until a ketamine-fueled scene with the two together out at a nightclub goes careening off the rails due to Adam’s pain and grief over preparing to lose his parents for a second time, as the return-to-childhood fantasy proceeds toward its inevitable end and begins to overwhelm him, along with threatening his newfound relationship with Harry.

It's an interesting experience, to say the least, to sit in a cinema and realize while looking at the people sitting around you that you’re the closest person in the audience to the film’s protagonist, and nearly an exact match for him: a writer, a gay man around 50 who came of age in the 1980s, and also one who hasn’t had a family at all since his teenage years. (I totally felt the precision of Haigh’s ’80s UK pop song choices for the movie’s soundtrack, from Fine Young Cannibals’ “Johnny Come Home” to Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind,” and especially The Housemartins’ “Build.”) Having been disowned at age 16 myself in part for being gay, I probably related a bit too closely to Adam’s predicament, even though his character’s loss happened in such a different way from my own. His disowning was accidental while mine was more intentional, though I think the effect is probably much the same. What does the idea of being disowned mean to most people, if they can even relate to it at all? It’s the experience of being cut adrift, which at once liberates you from the past while also binding you to it permanently since all of us must live connected somehow to ourselves as children and then as teenagers. Perhaps that’s one reason why I just sat there still and silent during the big emotional climax between Adam and his parents before their final departure, accompanied by scattered sniffles from around the audience. I’d already felt that myself long ago as a much younger person and had to steel myself against it back then, in order to survive what I’ve since survived.

There’s a muted quality to many of the movie’s scenes that I think serves the actors more than it serves the narrative or the audience, and maybe that’s part of why the last quarter of the film underwhelmed me in its final act. Though it cohered overall, both with the earlier parts of the film and within the final stretch, I’m not certain if it really aligned. The alignment might be with the source material itself, with which I’m unfamiliar, and the film ultimately didn’t inspire me to familiarize myself more with the source material either. I also noticed how clearly the movie’s closing image, as the camera slowly ascends into the dark night sky far above Adam and Harry embracing each other in bed, gives a hard visual nod not only to the opening of the music video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love,” the song selection that closes the movie, but also to the same final image in Gregg Araki’s 2005 film Mysterious Skin, in which two characters embrace and comfort each other alone together in the wake of re-connecting over their own deep and shared childhood traumas. Some viewers, of course, will find the ending somewhat bleak in our current era. (I’ve avoided tossing in the big spoiler.) I found it fitting, even if I wasn’t as markedly moved by it as I’d expected I would be.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this review, especially the attentoion to the films soundtrack. Have been a fan of Haigh's films and television work, and this piece prompts me to watch more .