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film review

All of Us Strangers

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Written by Andrew Haigh, based on the novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada

Starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell

Classification 14A; 105 minutes

Opens in select theatres Jan. 5

Critic’s Pick

An empty man sits in an empty building, pondering the vast emptiness awaiting him the next day, and the day after that. This is not the most energetic or promising starting point for All of Us Strangers, but director Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Lean on Pete) knows how to build towering moments of human drama from the tiniest foundations. And he mostly pulls off such a feat again in this tale of grief and generational pain.

But what some film-festival audiences have already declared the great tear-jerker of the season is both more and less than that simple description – the trick of the film is to momentarily persuade audiences that the entirety of All of Us Strangers is half-full rather than, well, you know.

Essentially a four-hander that feels tailormade for pandemic-era production protocols (even though it was shot in the PPE-free time of 2022), Haigh’s adaptation of Japanese novelist Taichi Yamada’s book Strangers centres on two lost souls, and two found. Mostly, this is the story of Adam (Andrew Scott), a screenwriter who does little but stare. Either at his computer screen or outside the window of his London high-rise, a building so new that he seems to be the only resident. That is until one day Adam encounters the overly friendly neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal) in the elevator.

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The two form a hesitant kind of romance, with Adam initially spurning Harry’s late-night advances, until it blossoms into something tangible, real, inseparable. But those rare times when Harry isn’t around, Adam finds himself making pilgrimages to the suburban home in which he grew up. And it is there, one day, where he encounters his mom (Claire Foy) and dad (Jamie Bell), who died in a car crash 30 years ago.

As Adam begins to fill these ghosts in on what they have missed for the past three decades, he finds his relationship with Harry surging into strange new corners, too. One particularly surreal evening follows the couple as they do ketamine at a local club, where the lines between dreams and reality, the dead and the living, desire and jealousy, blur into one supremely messy haze. It is at either this point or, more likely quite earlier, that tuned-in audiences will recognize just where Haigh is going with all of this. The big question is whether the film’s developments – “twists” is too strong a word – will compel rivers of tears or a more detached, respectful sense of agreement.

Without the committed performances of its four leads, there might be a third, more unkind option.

But Scott, best known for playing the Hot Priest on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, is tremendously affecting as the film’s emotional anchor and its main perspective, giving at least some sense of internal life to what is a severely underwritten character. Adam, as a person, seems to be defined by two things: his orphaning and his screenwriting, the latter of which is never touched upon in terms of genre, success, etc. The irrepressibly charming Mescal, currently the best boyfriend that the internet could ever hope for, is similarly helpful in adding to a script that cannot help but subtract, playing Harry as the most irresistible kind of sex object.

Open this photo in gallery:

Jamie Bell in a scene from All of Us Strangers.The Associated Press

On the other side of the story, and plane of existence, are Foy and Bell as a couple who cannot quite comprehend the situation that their spirits have been placed in. There are almost too many directions for the “elder” performers to go here, but they both manage to find exactly the right lane, and stick to it.

Ultimately, All of Us Strangers will make you cry – I’m not sure there’s a human being alive that won’t break down just a little while listening to The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which rolls over the film’s final scene and end credits – but this isn’t a movie that should be measured in tears. That is a rather empty game, isn’t it?

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