All of Us Strangers Confronts the Dangers of Spinning Trauma Into Art
Andrew Quintana on Director Andrew Haigh’s New Masterpiece
British director Andrew Haigh has spent much of his career telling intimate queer stories that defy genre expectations, finding the poetry in our ordinary yet captivating realities. His characters grapple with self-consciousness, feeling as though they are constantly being observed and judged by a largely indifferent straight society. They carry the weight of their gay identity within a world that may no longer care either way, until it suddenly does.
His new film, All of Us Strangers, explores how gay men hide from themselves. It’s a companion piece to his 2011 masterpiece Weekend, a melancholy meditation on hook-up culture centered on two British guys in their 30s whose 72-hour affair is cut short by one of them leaving for America.
In All of Us Strangers, two men again connect against dramatic obstacles after a one-night stand. The paradox of Haigh’s approach is that his meticulous realism, capturing faces teetering on the edge of rejection, reaches for the extraordinary. He has remained true to his original, gritty vision of queer life, even as Hollywood executives clamor for a certain stripe of adult gay tragedy, in the vein of Brokeback Mountain or Philadelphia, or now increasingly, YA hits like Heartstopper and Red, White and Royal Blue.
Gay vulnerability is a crucial aspect of Haigh’s creative process—especially evident in All of Us Strangers, arguably his masterpiece. Haigh adapted the script from Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel Strangers, a metaphysical ghost story set in Tokyo. The book revolves around a divorced man who starts an affair with a woman named Keiko, the only other tenant in his apartment building, while simultaneously encountering manifestations of his long-dead parents as they appear to him from childhood.
This plot unfolds like a universal metaphor for the modern mind, alienated in an impersonal cityscape, yearning for sexual fulfillment as well as the safety and familiarity of home associated with one’s inner child. The protagonist reconnects with his estranged son at the novel’s end, subsuming his grief over his parents into the duty of fatherhood.
He has remained true to his original, gritty vision of queer life, even as Hollywood executives clamor for a certain stripe of adult gay tragedy.
When the film opens, the middle-aged protagonist, Adam (Andrew Scott), is struggling to work out a screenplay about his closeted childhood. The top of his laptop screen reads “EXT: 1987,” conjuring an image of a young boy growing up on the outskirts of London with conservative parents. This is the era of homophobia streamed on airwaves with the rise of Margaret Thatcher’s election, and the spread of HIV/AIDS; one can imagine a structure toggling between past and present.
But Haigh, in line with his previous films, deliberately steers away from flashbacks. What sets All of Us Strangers apart not only from its source material but other LGBTQ+ movies is the specificity of its central question: How can queer people contend with the grief of losing parents before getting a chance to reveal their true selves?
Haigh films his desolate London cityscape like an eerie dream. His opening shot captures the apartment building Adam lives in alone—or, almost alone. There are only two lighted windows. The person occupying the other apartment is Jake (Paul Mescal), a younger, thickly accented hot guy. We meet him holding a bottle of whiskey as he knocks on Adam’s door. His flirty banter carries an apocalyptic tone as he jokes (or does he?) that they live in the type of building designed to make people want to jump right out of it. Jake insists that since they are the only people in this building, they may as well get to know each other.
There is a hurried, rapid urgency on Jake’s face, the sort of pained longing familiar to many struggling gay men, scrolling apps at three in the morning, hoping for a stranger beside them to quell the unease of loneliness. But, as Jake stands helplessly at the threshold like a lost puppy looking for a home, Adam shuts the door: he is a stranger, after all.
Quite unlike the original source material, Haigh also proves attuned to the psychosexual dynamic between father and lover that the story suggests in thoughtful editing. When Adam strolls through a park and comes across a stranger who seems as if he’s cruising in the bushes, the man (Jamie Bell) tilts his head back like a proposition. But Adam—and by extension the audience—are instead led back to his childhood home.
This stranger is not a potential lover, but Adam’s dead father in early-middle-aged form. Adam’s parents died in a bicycle accident when he was 12 years old; the scenes that follow with their ghosts play out like a lost soul searching for catharsis and resolution in a fantasy. Adam comes out to his mom (Claire Foy) in the way he wishes he could’ve when she were alive. His Mom expresses worry that he could get AIDS, but Adam assures her,“It’s different now.”
How can queer people contend with the grief of losing parents before getting a chance to reveal their true selves?
The next day, after rekindling a relationship with his parents, Adam finally welcomes Jake into his apartment. They proceed to talk about semantics of queerness, Jake complaining that replacing the word queer with “gay” has taken the “cock-sucking” out of the whole thing. Adam admits he feels like his (straight) friends have abandoned him to raise kids in the suburbs. The heterosexual suburban fantasy connotes loss for Adam, both in childhood and adulthood.
Haigh takes advantage of the novel’s urban atmosphere to present a tragically relatable fable about what it means to be gay in the modern world, drawn to places and people which ultimately reveal themselves as intangible, even haunted. The camera’s steady, unsentimental lens, however, never steers the story into soap.
Instead, the unraveling of Adam’s metaphysical experience makes for Haigh’s most experimental, trippy filmmaking to date. In one scene, Adam attempts to introduce Jake to his parents; the house is empty. Riding the Tube back to London, Adam screams like he’s just heard the news his parents have died all over again and the screen rends itself apart like a Francis Bacon painting.
In Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, recently adapted for Broadway, tragedies constrict the central queer protagonist’s personality so tightly that he seems like little more than a collection of symptoms, almost presented as a dish to arouse the reader’s appetite for sorrow. All of Us Strangers, however, takes a different approach to trauma and characterization. The film delves into why Adam’s loss of his parents, who have never rejected him, results in profound sexual shame in adulthood. It lingers on the question rather than the answer.
What sets Haigh’s adaptation apart is his use of Yamada’s source material to contemplate why trauma exerts such an addictive grip over all of us and hinders our ability to form genuine connections with others. Adam and Jake, representing different generations of gay men, serve as foils for exploring broader themes of the universal experience of alienation among gay men throughout time.
As Adam aptly puts it about gay life to the ghost of his mother, “It’s different now,” but in some ways, it remains the same. After all, the only ghosts that can haunt anyone are those we willingly invite through the door.