Andrew Haigh’s Infinite All of Us Strangers Makes Love Our Goal

Generations, culture, loneliness, and grief in queer culture and how true love transcends the mortal coil.

“The power of love
A force from above
A sky-scraping dove
Flame on burn desire
Love with tongues of fire
Purge the soul
Make love your goal”

The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Andrew Haigh’s exquisite queer ghost story and romance is adapted from Strangers a 1987 novel by Japanese author Taichi Yamada, but it is also indebted to the 1984 song The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Even in 1984 there was little mistaking (unless willingly done) that Holly Johnson and his band were openly queer. It is fitting then, that Andrew Haigh uses the musical motif in his time slipping story: moving the protagonist, Adam (Andrew Scott) between his present life overlooking central London to Croydon in 1980s and his childhood home.

Adam lives in an almost empty high-rise apartment complex. He is a television screenwriter in his forties. He observes the world at a removed distance from his solitary existence. He speaks to no one. He watches old music clips from the 1980s. His sole outlet is his writing, yet he’s struggling to create something personal. Andrew Haigh and cinematographer Jamie Ramsay, and production designer Sarah Finlay define Adam’s isolation, depression, and nostalgia with immediate effect. Adam is both inside and outside of London. He is careless with his appearance and eating habits. He sleeps on the couch. He is listless and incarnated in something akin to a half-life.

A fire alarm goes off in his building which seems almost absurd as there is no one there to set a fire. He shuffles out his door, down the empty corridor, to an empty elevator and stands outside until it stops. The apartment is a dwelling where Adam exists as a ghost haunting the uncanny modern space.

A dishevelled but handsome young man named Harry (Paul Mescal) knocks on his door. Harry is drunk and suggests Adam was looking at him from outside the building. Perhaps he would like some company. Surely Adam would like company, they are the only two people in the place. He’s flirtatious but also mildly desperate. “I’ve got vampires at my door,” he tells Adam – he also has a bottle of liquor and pleading eyes. Adam is so shocked that anyone would disturb his habitual solitude he gently rebuffs Harry. Another time, perhaps?

Time itself in All of Us Strangers is a collapsing concept. Adam gets on the train to return to his childhood home to find inspiration for his screenplay. His clothing is reminiscent of mid-eighties wear. The train ride itself is almost an inverse experience to Jimmy Sommerville’s in Bronksi Beat’s Smalltown Boy (no Bronksi Beat songs are on the soundtrack but fellow London Records band Fine Young Cannibals’ Johnny Won’t You Come on Home appears instead). He looks into the window of his former home and a young boy is watching him. Wandering from a playground to a heath he is approached by a man (Jamie Bell) who beckons him to follow him. What at first glance could appear to be an anonymous hook-up is something else entirely. The man is his deceased father, and he is inviting him home.

Adam registers something between passivity and shock as his mother (Claire Foy) fusses over him and embraces him. They are all aware that the meeting is impossible as both parents died in 1987 at Christmas time. And yet, they are there together, and Adam and his family get the opportunity to meet as both parents and child and as adults who must reintroduce themselves. “You must come back,” they tell him. “One of us will be in.”

Back in London and the present moment Adam sees Harry looking up at him from outside his apartment. This time Adam does invite him in and the two begin a tentative but erotogenic sexual relationship which grows into deep intimacy where they share their feelings of dislocation. Haigh’s script peels back the generation gap between the men. Adam, a product of Generation X and the homophobia and fear associated with the AIDs crisis reveals how he remained mostly single. Gen Z Harry’s lack of a partner comes from something else – perhaps a lack of being able to care for himself. Despite his family being relatively accepting he has been side-lined as the son who hasn’t brought his parents grandchildren. There was nothing overt and he was never unwelcomed; he just slipped away from his Dorking family and moved to London to experience the wider world (again echoes of Smalltown Boy).

Adam moves between the present (and possible future) with Harry, and the past with his parents. Again, a generation gap is present. When his excited and proud mother speaks to him about a possible marriage or girlfriend, Adam tells her he is gay. Something as a child he never had the opportunity to express despite his bedroom being somewhat a shrine to indeterminate gay culture in the 1980s (Erasure albums, posters of Frankie Goes to Hollywood). There was a specific blindness working and middle-class British people indulged in when it came to queer culture in the 80s. Even the most obvious examples of queer music and art such as Soft Cell and The Pet Shop Boys could be folded into the mainstream as long as no-one mentioned what was apparent.

Mum’s reaction to the news that her son is gay is typical of the period. Somewhere between shock, fear, anger, and concern. Foy’s exuberance for her son turns into almost cold revulsion as he grills him about that terrible disease and asks him why he would choose to be lonely and childless. Adam has to patiently explain to her that things have changed. AIDs is no longer the crisis it once was. Queer people can marry and have children. “Isn’t that like having your cake and eating it too?” she asks. She balks at even touching what Adam has. Homophobia was so ingrained for her that she believes that she can contract a disease just by being near a gay man. She doesn’t understand, he isn’t a hairdresser – he’s a writer. Aren’t people nasty to him? Every cliché of the period is reiterated to Adam and he becomes once again a small boy maintaining a secret that his peers clocked, but not his parents.

In the present Adam and Harry are finding a new liberation together. Their lovemaking, domestic routines, and breaking out into the world of clubbing and drugs is the kind of life they both thought that they would experience when they left their respective small towns (Adam was adopted by his maternal grandparents and raised in Ireland). Yet despite their passion for each other there is something fragile about both men. Adam can’t trust that Harry is truly attracted to him because he is older. Harry is on a path of low-key self-destruction. They find and nurture each other – soothing their individual insecurities. Yet there is a brokenness in both men. For Adam it is his overwhelming grief. For Harry it is something akin to self-loathing nihilism. A nightclub scene and train ride becomes a distorted nightmare. The pulsing strobes and neon lights whirl as Adam becomes feverish.

Adam splits his time between two “homes,” the house he grew up in and the home he is making with Harry. Adam’s father explains that he knew that there was something different about him. “You could never throw a ball” he says. “You’re making me sound like a cliché,” Adam laughs. He still can’t throw a ball. The deeper conversation between them reveals that Dad knew he was being bullied at school and Adam was a bit “tutti fruitti,” but he didn’t want to confront Adam’s probable sexuality because he understood that he was just as ignorant as the boys who bullied him. Dad knows that the casual jokes of the time about a teacher being a bit limp wristed or telling Adam to not cross his legs like a girl damaged his son. Adam tries to absolve him but they both recognise that Adam was a stranger to himself and to an extent his parents because he couldn’t let them know who he was.

Haigh gives Adam the chance to reconstruct his childhood. The more time he spends with Mum and Dad, the more of a child he becomes. Somehow he can wear his pyjamas from his pre-teen self and slip into bed with his parents as he once did. The Christmas tree is decorated. They sing the Pet Shop Boys version of You Were Always on My Mind a song Mum loves, performed by a queer duo (which she becomes aware of) and the famous ode to love, regret, and the longing to make amends. Mum and Dad are younger than Adam. They never had the chance to live a full life – to get to know their son and see the man they are proud of (even if Adam feels they have nothing to be proud of him for). Yet, at some stage the reunion will have to end. Adam will never properly grow up if he lives in the liminal space between his past and present. For anyone who has lost someone they love, especially if that loss came far too early; will never be adequate time to be with them and let them go with grace. Just one moment more…

What cures loneliness born of trauma? When Adam tells Harry of his parents’ death (and the gruesome details surrounding the crash) he admits, “I was always lonely. But this was new. It was a terror. Like I would always be lonely.” What cures loneliness born of never feeling completely accepted? Harry talks about how he inevitably drifted outside his heteronormative family, “I’ve always felt like a stranger in my own family. Coming out just puts an edge on that. It’s not really anyone’s fault.” How easy it becomes to stop caring about yourself – whether that be by drowning in booze and drugs or closing off your future because the past was painful. Andrew Haigh’s superlative film finds the answer in “undying, death-defying love.”

Rarely does a film come along where every element works to the level of perfection of All of Us Strangers. From Andrew Scott’s vulnerable and quietly humorous performance where his face and body are the locus for all of Adam’s anxieties, desires, his aching need to give and receive love and solace. It is impossible not to transfixed by his restrained and phenomenally powerful acting. Jamie Bell, so often overlooked as a prestigious adult actor, puts to rest any notion that he will permanently in some regard be the grown up “Billy Elliot.” After Paul Mescal’s award-nominated performance in Aftersun he proves that, despite some lesser recent roles, he is an actor of astounding merit. Claire Foy needs no introduction as an accomplished and chameleonic performer. Her “Mum” echoes so many mothers of the period. Her acceptance and love for her “kind and gentle boy,” who is a continuation of her father, herself, and her husband speaks to what closes any generational gap. The reminder that we all exist in each other.

Technically, Haigh’s direction is seamless. The film conveys distance, isolation, looking through glass at the world. Reflections can be ominous but also metaphors for intimacy and love. The art direction and costuming are so authentically and aesthetically mid to late eighties that Adam’s experiences with Mum and Dad are real despite their logical impossibility. The music supervision and song choices are so integral that they not only inform the narrative, they create it.

All of Us Strangers is a constellation where stars that have died years ago still fill the skies with light and wonder. Where there is love, there is eternity. No matter who you are: queer, straight, mother, father, daughter, son, or lover – All of Us Strangers reaches out to embrace whatever notion of a soul you ascribe to. There are life experiences that are purely universal. Fill the silence in life with truth.

Director: Andrew Haigh

Cast: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, Claire Foy

Writer: Andrew Haigh, (based on the novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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