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All of Us Strangers Is a Raggedly Emotional Spectre of a Ghost Story

In 2011, the British filmmaker Andrew Haigh told the story of a young gay man living in an anonymous high rise and seeking some kind of human connection. That film, Weekend, is a modern gay classic, discursive and melancholy and sexy. Twelve years later, Haigh is back to a high rise, this one an eerily empty luxury condo-plex in London, for his new film All of Us Strangers, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Thursday.

In that building lives a gay man, Adam (a muted but effective Andrew Scott), bored and shiftless in middle-age. He’s a screenwriter struggling to get started on a project about his family but mostly spending his time watching television and snacking into the wee hours. One day, as also happened in Weekend, a chance encounter puts Adam in close proximity to a handsome stranger, Harry (a scruffily appealing Paul Mescal), who seems to be the only other tenant in this gleaming new building. While their flirtation journeys toward sex and romance, Adam also ventures back into his past. Quite literally, in a way: when he visits his childhood home, perhaps in search of inspiration, Adam finds his parents there, young as they were when they died in a car accident—maybe the first and most significant confirmation that Adam’s was meant to be a solitary life.

All of Us Strangers is a ghost story, occasionally frightening but otherwise pitched in the tender, searching language of mourning. Adam’s parents, sensitively played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, seem to have been waiting for their son to come home; they know nothing of his life and are eager to see and hear how he’s grown. Just as Harry, back in the quiet of Adam’s apartment, prods Adam with questions whose answers help fill in a portrait of a man adrift in solitude, an orphan who seems to have, somewhere in adulthood, once again lost purchase.

Which is a common feeling among middle-agers, but perhaps especially so—at least, in Haigh’s argument—for gay people whose very existence can isolate them from the comfortably accepted patterns and rhythms of the regular world. Being gay is not a lonely life anymore, Adam insists to his mother when she suggests as much. Not like it used to be, anyway. We don’t really believe him when he says it, though; nor does he seem to. All of Us Strangers, with that evocatively damning title, is about alienation, particular perhaps to gay men of Haigh’s age who grew up on a fault line of identity, as a new progressivism, a tolerance and openness, attempted to wrench free of the horrors of the past.

Has Adam fallen through that crack? Not quite. But he dangles over it, and is glad to have Harry’s hand, pulling him, however briefly or not, toward the light of contentment, of self-acceptance. And yet he can’t shake his grief, for his parents and for, in some senses, the life they had hoped for him. The ease of heterosexual marriage and children and houses with yards. Adam has lost friends to that inevitability, perhaps partially explaining his rather empty existence in the city.

As it considers these losses—both Adam’s discrete tragedy and a more ineffable desolation—All of Us Strangers wanders into abstraction. Haigh’s film whispers with mystery; the fact of Adam’s parents, suddenly returned, is not the only unsettling unknown of the movie. Dream bleeds into reality as Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s jarring score pings and murmurs and drones. The film’s lush visuals are discordantly offset by that eerie soundscape, and by the harshness of Haigh’s ideas. (The film is loosely adapted from Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers; the gay text is all Haigh’s.)

The impact of All of Us Strangers will likely vary wildly depending on the beholder. With such a despairing thesis, the film may seem awfully foreign to some younger queer people who, while no doubt still suffering the batterings of an often hostile world, can’t quite identify with Adam’s internal wrestling: his fear, his coded shame, his hermetic longing. Older viewers may run headlong toward the film’s despondency, finding solace, even catharsis, in its haunting ache.

It’s a difficult work, raggedly emotional but chilly. Which was also the case with Haigh’s 2015 film 45 Years, in which a long and mostly happy marriage must be reassessed when something like a ghost comes lilting out of the past. That film is going for deep feeling but is, instead, a rather clinical study of human thought and behavior. All of Us Strangers has a similarly antiseptic quality. For all of its piercing insight and arresting performances, its steamy sex, its devastating conclusions, the film operates at a remove, from behind a pane of glass. Perhaps because Haigh gives Adam so little tether to the realm of the real; so much of the film is lost in plaintive reverie. All of Us Strangers is itself a kind of specter, looming and dreadfully insistent and yet incorporeal, impossible to truly embrace and hold tight to for dear life.

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