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«All of Us Strangers» is a romantic fantasy about filmmaking

In the previous films of the British director Andrew Haigh — «Weekend» (2011), «45 Years» (2015) and «Lean on Pete» (2017) – the pictures did much less work than the script and actors. There was something literal about his filmmaking that undermines the intense emotion of the stories he films. His new movie «All of Us Strangers» is a little different and a lot better. The fact that this is a kind of ghost story, a fantasy drama, prompts Haigh to film in a way that conveys a distinctive, alternate realm of experience. Even if one didn’t know he had strong personal associations with the story (and I didn’t until I saw the film), it’s clear that the confluence of this private investment and the fantastic elements of the narrative brings new things to the story. tone and form to Haigh’s image making. If his previous films felt like mere renderings of their scripts, this one is truly a cinematic experience.

«All of Us Strangers» is a film for filmmakers – or rather, for screenwriters. That’s the task of protagonist Adam (Andrew Scott), and he struggles with it as the action begins. Living alone in a high-windowed apartment, with the television on for distraction and inspiration, Adam moves from the blank screen of his laptop to the quiet sanctuary of his sofa, enduring a writer’s frustration compounded by the subject he has taken: his own past, his own family. And his current circumstances cause a deeper loneliness: a single gay man living in a new apartment building with a few other tenants. However, he catches a strange glimpse when Adam comes out half-dressed in the middle of the night during a fire alarm in the entire building. He looks into a lighted window and notices a neighbor who refuses to budge from his sixth-floor apartment. When Adam gets home, he gets a knock on the door from neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal), who arrives with a bottle of whiskey, but Adam sends him away.

So far, so literally, but there is something slightly oneiric about this combination of minor odd events, which places the action in the register of the mysterious. When Adam returns to his script with the scene title «EXT. SUBURBAN HOUSE 1987,” is in the paradoxical position of being too much inside his own head and not deep enough in it. To get inspired and jog his memory, he watches the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video and digs through a box of childhood memorabilia. Looking out his apartment window at the nearby train tracks, he is forced to search for his past in person and take the train to his boyhood home in Sanderstead, a suburb of London. There, at the window of the house where he lived, he sees a child; in a nearby park, he runs into a man who invites him home – his father (Jamie Bell). There, Adam’s mother (Claire Foy) is waiting for him in the house. Both parents are apparently the same age as in 1987, when Adam was eleven. Spoiler alert: his parents were killed in a car accident that Christmas. The gist of «All of Us Strangers» is Adam reconnecting with them, sharing stories of his life since then, as well as things they didn’t know about his childhood.

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Once reunited with his parents—who look poignantly younger than their 40s—Adam is seemingly addicted to the experience, making more and more frequent and urgent visits to their home. They seem to be middle-class people with little knowledge of art and are amazed that he has become a writer. (His self-deprecating take on screenwriting—he says he’s «not a proper writer»—plays as a director’s wink.) Adam immediately and impressively accommodates them. His interviews with each of them, separately, reveal, with a sociological accuracy that is dramatically passionate, the changes in British legal and social attitudes to homosexuality. His mother is surprised to know that Adam faces no molestation and can marry another man and raise the children; dying while AIDS the crisis raged, she is surprised that the disease can be managed; when Adam talks about the bullying he experienced growing up, his father admits that he would have been one of the bullies as a schoolboy. As Adam keeps returning to Sanderstead, he soon goes from simply reminiscing about his childhood to reliving it with his parents’ enthusiastic participation – when he can’t sleep, he curls up in bed between his parents, and on Christmas Day he goes downstairs in his pajamas and heads to his favorite restaurant.

These phantasmagoric sequences, shot with a thrilling realism that makes the fantasy all the more poignant, make All of Us Strangers a sort of Life Wasn’t So Bad, a Christmas movie whose protagonist manages to pull off the banalities of his childhood, loving devotion, that was hidden beneath her, and bring it to the fore in a place of lingering trauma. Adam, who has always been a screenwriter, does a brilliant editing job on his life, cutting out decades of painful relationships and even normal conflicts. By seeing the details of his adolescence in light of the life he led, and by meeting his parents not as authorities but as close contemporaries, Adam alchemically turns a troubled childhood into gold.

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I didn’t know until I saw the movie that Adam’s old home was filmed in the house where Haigh himself grew up. (Thankfully, his parents are still alive.) But the intensity of Haigh’s attachment to the ghosts of his childhood is evident in the content of the film itself, including subtly transformative imagery that is new to his cinematic vocabulary. The cliché of watching the back of a character’s head to see what he sees suddenly feels fresh again, as having Adam’s astonished look imagined is more powerful than any performance could have been. Haigh makes ordinary close-ups more than mere emphasis through striking, painterly disproportions between foreground and background; even Adam’s grown-up stature in the city and household, which he has always seen from a child’s point of view, is marked as strikingly odd and unsettling. Meanwhile, the scene in which Adam’s ghostly parents come into contact with the world outside the house offers one of the best cinematic coups of the year.

«All of Us Strangers» has yet another aspect that expands the story far beyond the familiar and takes it into an entirely different realm of wish fulfillment. After an initial freeze, Adam’s neighbor Harry gives him a second chance and knocks on his door again. This time, Adam invites him in, and the two men begin a romantic and sexual relationship, during which they discuss their family backgrounds. After discussing the subject, Adam is inspired to bring Harry to Sanderstead to meet his parental apparitions – another extraordinary turn in the film’s metaphysical fantasy.

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Unfortunately, it is here that Haigh cannot transcend the limitations of his previous work. It wasn’t just the images in his three widely released features that seemed lacking; in each, the central relationships were deftly sketched but loosely defined. The relationship that develops between Adam and Harry suffers in the same way. When he talks about his childhood, it’s in numbing general terms, long on psychologizing but short on animating detail. Adam and Harry’s scenes together, for all their warmth, are as lightly rendered as those with his parents are dramatically rich, and the power of Haigh’s direction diminishes. There’s no point in giving away the final pieces of the film’s puzzle, but Harry and Adam’s bond is a writer’s relationship, limited to its function in the plot and its connection to Adam’s main realm of fantasy – the appearance of his parents. What the film lacks is a spark that jumps the gap from imagination to reality. For all its harsh shading of the screenwriter’s art, «All of Us Strangers» is a screenwriter’s film, asserting with a vengeance the power of intention over observation, of blueprint over finished product. ♦

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