Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Sarah Harvey Director: Andrew Haigh Screenplay: Andrew Haigh Cast: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, Claire Foy, Carter John Grout and Ami Tredea Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
It’s been six years since Andrew Haigh’s remarkable boy-and-his horse drama “Lean on Pete,” and he returns with an unusual ghost story that’s haunting not for any cheap shocks but for its insights about loneliness and loss. Based on a 1987 novel by Taichi Yamada whose original Japanese title translates as “Summer of the Strange People” but was called “Strangers” in its English version, “All of Us Strangers” is imbued with a hallucinatory quality that suggests it’s all a dream, though one shot through with touches of grief-laden nightmare.
Adam (Andrew Scott) is a screenwriter living in a virtually empty high-rise on the outskirts of London who’s stymied in his effort to begin a semi-autobiographical script set in 1987. He’s also surprised, not very happily, by Harry (Paul Mescal), apparently the only other resident in the complex, who shows up drunk at his door with a bottle of liquor. Adam initially puts him off, but they’re soon intimate.
Still suffering from writer’s block, Adam takes the commuter train into the city and walks to his modest childhood home, where he sees someone familiar in a window. Later he wanders in a field in the neighborhood, only to see that figure going into a store and waits for him to emerge. When he does, he immediately recognizes his father (Jamie Bell), who invites him back to the house, where his mother (Claire Foy) awaits them. The problem? They’re the same age they were when they died in a car crash when Adam was twelve. And they’re anxious to hear about the intervening years.
The aspect of his life that comes as the greatest shock to his mother is the fact that he’s gay, and she finds it difficult to accept that it has become as socially acceptable as Adam claims; his father is not surprised, and eventually offers an apology for not having been more supportive of his young son (Carter John Grout), who he suspected was being bullied. The conversations between Adam and his parents are one of the two central elements of the film, depicted as bringing a degree of closure to both him and them, as he finally comes to terms with the sense of loss he’s endured for so long and they can belatedly tell him how much they love him.
The other part of the story is Adam’s increasingly intense relationship with Harry, which leads not only to their sending time in gay clubs where Adam’s insecurities take their toll, but their telling one another about their childhoods. Their closeness ultimately encourages Adam, desperate about what’s happening to him, to take Harry to the house, where he hopes to introduce him to his spectral parents. Though no one answers to Adam’s knocking, Harry thinks he sees Adam’s parents inside and flees.
The narrative ends with goodbyes that are comforting in very different ways; and where one ghost story ends, another begins.
One could describe “All of Us Strangers” as an exceptionally elegant and touching chamber piece about the crippling effects of childhood trauma, told in the form of an elevated “Twilight Zone” episode. It’s marked by extraordinary performances from all four of the leads, whose delicate interplay is evidence of the sensitivity Haigh brings to the material in both writing and direction. It’s also lovingly made from the technical perspective, with production design (Sarah Finlay), costumes (Sarah Blenkinsop) and cinematography (Jamie D. Ramsay) that distinguish between the different eras and their distinct environments skillfully but without overemphasis, and editing by Jonathan Alberts that allows the sudden shifts to register without becoming utterly confusing. And Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score is subtly evocative without being too insistent.
The combination of psychological obviousness and narrative ambiguity in “All of Us Strangers” can be a mite irritating, but overall this is an affecting film, stimulating both emotionally and intellectually.