Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott in All of Us Strangers: Two of Ireland’s best-loved actors get down to some notably explicit coupling

First-look review: It’s almost as vulgar to mention that, with his performance in Andrew Haigh’s film, Scott looks set for an Oscar nomination

All of Us Strangers
    
Director: Andrew Haigh
Cert: None
Starring: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, Claire Foy
Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins

Approach with no prior knowledge and you could mistake this spooky, moving film for a work of autobiography. Andrew Haigh, director of the gay romance Weekend and the searing senior drama 45 Years, tells the story of an apparently lonely writer who, when not testing the gears on a new relationship, drifts back, literally or imaginatively, to speak with parents who are no longer with us. It has the precision of retooled memory. It speaks to experienced time and place.

It’s not Haigh’s autobiography. His own script draws from Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, the Japanese novel from 1987, to spin a tale that combines high eroticism with borderline sentimentality. Andrew Scott, first encountered in an isolated tower block that pokes up amid a weirdly underpopulated London, plays a tormented writer named Adam. We seem him knocking about the flat, failing to complete a screenplay and playing a selection of not-quite-cool hits from his teenage years. (In the course of the film we hear Pet Shop Boys, The Housemartins and Fine Young Cannibals.) While working through his melancholy, he encounters a boozy neighbour named Harry – it’s Paul Mescal, flag wavers – and the two fall into a relationship. Adam explains that his parents died when he was 12 and that he is now trying to write about them. “How’s it going?” Harry says. “Strangely,” comes the reply.

Not half. We see Adam return to his home and meet his parents (a perfectly meshed Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) as they were at the time of their death. It’s a beautiful conceit. Adam gets to talk through his sexuality as their near contemporary. Whatever else his folks may say, they can’t tell him to bow to their experience. As it happens, rather than greeting him with raw homophobia, they drag up the quaintly patronising concern that has now gone out of fashion. Remember? “They say it’s a lonely life,” mum says. There is a strain of social optimism in this muted, hazy film. No doubt both Adam and Harry still experience prejudice, but, though you wouldn’t exactly call All of Us Strangers a melioristic piece, we are constantly reminded that life has got better for gay men.

The audience can make what it wants of the parents’ reappearance. A Japanese adaptation of Strangers played it close to soft-pedalled macabre. This unapologetically English film – Adam’s family are from unglamorous Croydon – inclines more to the notion that we are watching a writer belatedly processing his own traumas. The twin stories wind in with one another to pull Adam from his unproductive torpor.


One is again reminded of how wisely Mescal has managed his recent spike in visibility. Aftersun was close to the most celebrated film of 2022. After a triumphant premiere at Telluride Film Festival, in September, All of Us Strangers is already shaping up to be the best reviewed film of this year. Unselfish and unhurried, Mescal comes at a potentially troublesome angle – substance abuse looks as if it could get out of hand – to Scott’s more buttoned-down, intellectual character. It is frightfully vulgar to mention Academy Awards, but, in the race for the best-actor prize, Scott is now at a similar position to the one occupied by Mescal this time last year: knocking on the door of a nomination.

It is more vulgar still to note that two of the nation’s best-loved actors get down to some notably explicit coupling. To this point, reviews in trade papers have kept the descriptions sober and civilised. One activity in particular – colloquially designated a meteorological analogy – is sure to get local tabloids in a delighted frenzy when the film opens here in January.

Never mind that. The sex is to an end, conveying an intimacy rare in contemporary cinema. So sure is Haigh’s touch that All of Us Strangers survives a closing audiovisual flourish that asks a lot of even the most indulgent audiences. Only a heel would object.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist