Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 24, 2024

Inconsolable loneliness becomes oddly comforting in All of Us Strangers

By HANNAH PHAN | January 31, 2024



All of Us Strangers deals with themes of grief and loneliness, as a screenwriter living alone in London gets a chance for closure when he discovers his long-dead parents alive in his childhood home, the same age and unchanged from when he lost them.

Memories are often accompanied by a longing for what could’ve been. The act of remembering involves combining the reality of one’s past with the desires of one’s current ‌self. In Andrew Haigh’s newest film, All of Us Strangers, an adaption of the 1987 novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, the coexistence of the past and present is explored in a quietly heartbreaking portrait of a lonely writer who is still grieving his dead parents. However, things begin to change as a mysterious stranger enters his life and begins to undermine his cycle of isolation. 

Adam (Andrew Scott) is ‌a 45-year-old screenwriter living in a new but eerily empty apartment building in modern London. His solitary life is interrupted when he meets his only other neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal), an enigmatic 28-year-old.

In a drunken stupor, Harry is introduced knocking on Adam’s door, longing not to be alone. He rambles to Adam, clearly just wanting to talk to someone. One of the first questions he asks Adam is “How do you cope?”, referring to the silence of the near-empty apartment building. He then elaborates that he has to play music to keep himself sane.

The idea of “how to cope” is central to the film. Adam has been trying to cope with his grief, his loneliness and his sexuality, but in response to Harry’s simple question about the absence of sound, he says nothing.

Despite Harry’s insistence that he’s only there to talk if Adam doesn’t want anything else from him, Adam rejects his invitation for a drink. Still lamenting the death of his parents, Adam has long been denying himself a connection with another person. As he’s reminiscing over old photographs and trinkets from his childhood, he’s compelled to take the train to his childhood home, where he finds his parents alive at the same age they were when they died over 30 years ago.

Overjoyed to see him, Adam and his parents have a sweet reunion. When he returns from the visit, he encounters Harry again. This time, Adam is the one who reaches out, and their relationship grows beyond the shut door that Adam had inflicted upon Harry’s initial offer. 

While balancing his newfound relationship with Harry, Adam makes frequent visits to see his parents. During these trips, he’s able to express what he never got to say to them while they were still alive. He talks about his job, where he’s living and, in a more significant moment, comes out to his mother and father. 

His parents are still products of their time, and in a similar vein to a typical coming-of-age narrative, Adam isn’t granted unwavering support. He has to convince his mother that “everything’s different now,” even as her ghost says that she wouldn’t know anything about that. 

His mother makes a reference to the AIDS crisis that Adam lived through as a teen, and he insists that it isn’t a worry anymore. This is a remarkable juxtaposition with a conversation he has with Harry, where he admits that for the longest time, he lacked physical intimacy and a romantic life in general because he was scared that he might die if he did pursue anything. He notes that this must be difficult for Harry to imagine since he comes from a younger generation, and similarly, it must be difficult for Adam’s mother to imagine a world so different from the time when she was alive. 

Still concerned, his mother remarks, “They say it’s a lonely life,” and Adam responds that people don’t actually say that anymore. She asks him if he is lonely, and he says that his loneliness isn’t because he’s gay — not mostly. It’s an important distinction to establish that Adam’s sexuality isn’t the cause of his loneliness, but that it’s also still a factor. In total, Adam’s solitude is a deeply layered issue.

With his father, Adam also confronts the constant sense of alienation that has been brewing inside of him since his childhood because of his father’s strict ideas of masculinity. While he was alive, his father had put pressure on Adam to conform. He also knew Adam was being bullied in school, but he never addressed the issue because he wanted Adam to change. Even after his death, Adam still subconsciously remembers the comments his father would make as a child, a sign he still hasn’t fully processed that trauma. Their scene of reconciliation is an overwhelmingly tender but bittersweet moment as his dad can’t change what he did, but Adam receives the apology and closure he never had.

The familial relationship between Adam and his parents is a driving force in the film, but the generational divide between Adam and Harry’s relationship is another interesting component because of its exploration of queer isolation. They both agree that while things have changed, it still doesn’t take much to feel outcasted from society in the same way that Adam had been as a teenager, especially with family. Even though Harry’s parents accept him, he acknowledges that he still exists on the edges of his own family, being held at a distance in comparison to his other siblings.

As Adam and Harry deal with their loneliness together, there is a subtle but unsettling bleakness that looms over the story. Adam’s parents are dead, so the moments he shares with them aren’t going to last forever. 

The crux of the film comes from how much you buy into Adam’s struggles. Those who can relate to all aspects of his character — his grief, loneliness, estrangement and complicated relationship with his parents — will ‌experience an authentic, moving narrative. The film becomes much weaker when you fail to connect to its protagonist, even more so than in most stories since every aspect of the film ultimately serves to explore Adam’s character. This flaw makes All of Us Strangers a potential hit-or-miss, especially since it has a polarizing ending, but on a technical level, it’s astounding. 

Andrew Scott does a spectacular job as the leading man. Known for his role as the charismatic but wounded priest in Fleabag, Scott brings the right amount of agency and perpetual yearning to a character ‌who is extremely closed off but still so full of desires for what could be. His performance is crushing, from every facial expression to voice fluctuation as he embodies a man so heavily weighed down.

As seen in Normal People, Paul Mescal is still a charming love interest. More notably, he possesses an uncanny ability to perfectly represent the character of a particularly lonely and vulnerable man, similar to his Oscar-nominated performance in Aftersun. Together, Scott and Mescal have inextricable chemistry, portraying their relationship on screen in a genuinely affecting way. Jamie Bell and Claire Foy as Adam’s parents also deliver monumental performances that make all the acting in this film an impressive treat to watch. 

A small cast of four and a limited set, mainly consisting of Adam’s apartment and his childhood home, are all that director Andrew Haigh needed to create a successful film. Haigh knows the power of simplicity. His choice to make the film more subdued creates a docile atmosphere that invites the audience into an intimate viewing experience. 

Although not grandiose, the cinematography is still incredible in its gorgeous color grading and ability to capture the intricate turmoil and longings that all of the actors bring to the screen. Mirror imagery and reflective shots are scattered throughout the film, representing how the heart of the story is in Adam’s reflections about himself and his relationships, or the lack thereof.

The film’s soundtrack is another noteworthy aspect. Playing Blur’s “Death of a Party” followed by “Always on My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys could be considered emotional manipulation, but the scenes that are shown are sublimely compassionate. The film’s denouement being set to a song called “The Power of Love” may be too on the nose, but the ending is a candid testament to the universal healing force of love, even if the love is tragic and solitary in nature.

No amount of grief will ever bring someone back. Everything you never did and everything you wish you could have done may never be realized in any tangible way, but it still becomes a part of you. Similarly, the love Adam has for his parents remains, even if they’re no longer with him, and he has no way to be with them again. His relationship with Harry doesn’t necessarily save him from his parental grief, but Adam’s own ability to process his heartache does. Full of gentle melancholy, All of Us Strangers affirms that sometimes all we have left are ideas, memories and fragments of the people who are no longer in our lives — and that that’s enough to hold onto.  

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