Queer Cinema’s Best Achievement In Ages
“Don’t Let People Happen To You.”
Context is debated in everything but this quote from gay pioneer Harvey Milk is liberating as it feels like the easiest thing in the world to do right now. It’s the beginning of 2024 and we are so frightened, so fragile, so exhausted, withdrawn, overwhelmed, and hopeless. Those of us who have the luxury to isolate ourselves from the world often dabble in it until it becomes a pattern all too familiar. With this comes an unbearable and unhealthy loneliness. We hate the way it feels but we become so used to it, yet we also feel safe with it. Harvey Milk was a man who encouraged people who felt alone not to isolate themselves but on paper, you can see how wounded souls will take it as an endorsement or permission to withdraw themselves from everyone and everything.
This was in no way the context of Milk’s words but I could not stop perseverating over this as I walked out of Andrew Haigh’s heart-shakingly tender ghost story All Of Us Strangers. The silent pleading for acceptance and repetitive waves of grief intersect so quickly, you’d be forgiven for equating it to a crash but it’s not... It’s a long-awaited embrace you won’t be ready to part with by the time it ends. The arrival of the credits will feel like you're being forcibly and physically separated from someone you're not allowed to see but should. The term “Star-crossed lovers” had to originate from somewhere.
I suppose all four angels acting their hearts out and more throughout this gentle wrenching ode to humanity can be equated to star-crossed lovers in their rights. All Of Us Strangers opens as the red sun rises over London from the angle of a new high-rise apartment tower. It’s still dark out and the camera lingers as the sky gets redder and redder until Adam’s (Andrew Scott) nervous yet resigned face slowly orbits into view. A gay screenwriter in his mid to late 40s, he decides to write about his deceased parents (Jamie Bell & Claire Foy) who perished in a violent car crash when he was twelve. He ventures out and sees his dad waving to him from afar and Adam follows him back to his childhood home where both his parents greet him happily, looking alive and well. They also look exactly as they did before they died so they are now younger than Adam is. This is never verbally acknowledged and it’s in service of the story that it never is. That time has moved on is apparent from the get-go and Adam’s parents pour small pints of whisky and toast their son who nervously but happily shares a drink with them.
Adam is soon drunkenly approached by his neighbor Harry (Aftersun’s Paul Mescal) who is the only other tenant in the very new tower complex. Silence is truly a sound of its own and All Of Us Strangers compartmentalizes its angelic score, song choice, and various moments where the silence is overwhelming and all you hear are the tones of the characters. This is especially effective in Adam and Harry’s early meetings. Both gay men who grew up in different eras acknowledge their isolation, upbringings, and their relationship to being gay in a culture that they don’t fully understand themselves.
Adam remembers so clearly growing up in the AIDS panic and was bullied relentlessly at school. He prefers acknowledging himself as gay as he remembers how “Queer” was so passionately used as an insult and has failed to embrace it the way the younger Harry has. Harry in turn remembers the word “Gay” being used to insult everything as he grew up in the early to mid-2000s. These conversations between them are so fascinating and refreshing as they provoke a cultural curiosity in one another rather than discomfort and seek to embrace where the other is coming from. Adam, having missed out on way too much as it is, goes to a club with Harry, and the fire-burning passion of first love and a zest for life is born. The whole scene is like an actual birth as the flickering lights in the club make it like a hospital room where the lights spark right before someone new enters reality.
Adam’s sense of grief and missed opportunities to have certain conversations with his parents and see them grow as well continue to be a very crucial aspect of the film. We all want to go back and do things differently or say things we feel but there’s always something that holds us back. Claire Foy who dominated last year's January screens with her furious performance in Women Talking channels her tender side as she embodies that 1980s English Mum who pours tea, asking her handsome son if he has a girlfriend against her husband’s advice not to. The camera remains on both Adam and his mother as he comes out to her. He starts slowly and nervously and once the questions of his mum’s generation start being asked, he can’t stop himself from answering truthfully. She’s not necessarily prejudiced but she’s ignorant and very accustomed to believing particular assumptions about gay people and the lives they lead as the realities of being gay in the 80s remain on her mind and she’s astonished that time has moved forward.
She’s bewildered that gay couples are allowed to legally marry and have children. “Aren’t people nasty to you?” What of that ghastly disease?” “Is your life lonely?” An entire generation of gay people mourn in denial for the life they never got to live and they remember these kinds of questions being so reasonable because, at a particular time in history, they were. “Well,” his mum says willfully but nervously. “I must admit I’m a bit surprised. I’m not sure what I feel about IT.”
Adam’s dad is more accepting in the traditional sense and the three of them eventually make for some truly exhilaratingly gorgeous scenes that the film has been inching towards since it began. Slightly older audiences who remember the cinema of the 21st century beginning with Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot and how big a deal that was at the time are going to make up half the majority of audiences All Of Us Strangers can expect. It’s as though he’s been waiting for this performance his whole life and he and Foy are perfectly convincing as a devoted couple of generations past.
It is mostly Mescal and Scott’s spellbinding romance that transfixes the heart ever so passionately. It’s so rare to see gay love scenes depicted with such uncensored and erotic yet gentle, tender, and beautiful complexity. The way hands move so slowly and they remain still in their embrace, never wanting to let go. The sincerity of what these four people have with one another as they reexamine past and present, culture and isolation, grief and mortality, identity and longing, Andrew Haigh has delivered Queer cinema’s best film since 2019’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Haigh who is known for writing and directing 2011’s Weekend and Red Sparrow’s Charlotte Rampling’s Oscar-nominated turn in 45 Years, All Of Us Strangers is his most personal film to date. A gay man himself who’s reckoning with past cultures modernizing in confusing ways and remembering the shame and attitudes of the 80s as time threatens to reverse backwards, he filmed in the childhood house he grew up in with his parents making every moment a kind of shadowdance.
Loneliness is universal. Audiences will look at the raw and gutting human experience on display here and find themselves reminded of their desire for it. That means going out and living in the real world like these people had to and will have to again. I don’t know that that’s something I feel particularly ready to just dive right into but I know I want it. I suppose the best way to look at it is to embrace that, like mortality, All Of Us Strangers has to end at some point. I know hope is nearly impossible to have for the future right now. None of us have to have it but maybe we can at least take comfort in knowing what hope is as Harvey Milk sees it:
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Levienaise-Farrouch, E. (2024). All of Us Strangers [Original Motion Picture Score] [LP] - VINYL. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. Retrieved January 16, 2024, from https://www.bestbuy.com/site/all-of-us-strangers-original-motion-picture-score-lp-vinyl/36195497.p?skuId=36195497.