All of Us Strangers review: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal shine in haunting heartbreaker

All of Us Strangers is playing in theaters and breaking hearts. Here's why the emotional movie is impossible to miss.
Andrew Scott in ALL OF US STRANGERS. Photo by Chris Harris. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.
Andrew Scott in ALL OF US STRANGERS. Photo by Chris Harris. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved. /

All of Us Strangers is director and screenwriter Andrew Haigh's first foray back into the world of cinema after six years. With his newest work, equal parts love and ghost story, Haigh constructed one of the most skillfully crafted, captivating, and intimate tales of 2023, led by a superb central cast.

The film is a four-hander, dependent entirely on its cast of four (only one other unnamed character has any dialogue at all), three of whom then orbit a stunning Andrew Scott, who solidifies himself here as not only an internet boyfriend but one of our most capable working actors. He plays a lonely and isolated screenwriter named Adam, who lives in a huge, largely empty apartment complex in London. The only other resident, Harry (Paul Mescal), as wandering and alone as Adam, comes knocking one day and the two eventually begin a relationship.

Claire Foy (brilliant as ever as a mother grappling with her own insufficiencies as a parent in life) and Jamie Bell round out the cast as Adam's long-dead parents, who reappear at exactly the age they died, in the house that Adam grew up in in the suburbs of London. The film is entirely comprised of Adam's interactions with Harry, who he falls into an easy, passionate domestic romance with, and his parents, who he repeatedly travels outside the city to visit.

These four actors have delivered a number of cerebral, intimate, internal, talking-heavy performances across their filmographies in oftentimes award-winning form, and all of them rise to the challenge of playing out Haigh's complicated ghost story, which offers no explanations as to many 'whys.' Why did Adam's parents reappear? Why can he see them? Why now? All of Us Strangers needs not concern itself with answering those questions, of broadening its borderline science-fiction scope. Rather, it stays well within the frame of magical realism by not delving into the 'whys' and 'hows.'

While the lack of concrete answers might isolate some viewers who might prefer an internal logic to grasp onto, the eventual conclusions the film comes to are satisfying as much as they are wrenching. "Answers" come in the form of Adam's much-needed closure with his parents, a cure to his loneliness in Harry — emotional truths, rather than tangible ones.

And those emotional truths are devastating. Queerness is central to this film, and Haigh — a gay man himself who centers queer identity in most of his work — takes a direct approach to it, rather than simply making it an aspect of Adam's identity that needs no examination or context. Adam and Harry frankly discuss their preferences with the labels "queer" and "gay," and those preferences have their own reasonings related to the gap in their ages. Adam's conversations with his parents, who he was never able to come out to during their lives, about his sexuality are distinctly aware of the era during which they died and during which Adam was coming into his sexuality as a young boy. Adam's development as a gay man is largely driven by the contextual circumstances he grew up with.

This awareness and treatment of time — time left, time since, time passing — is sometimes murky within the film itself; its denial of creating an internal logic extends to the handling of time passing especially. We're never sure how long it's been since Adam started seeing Harry, or since Adam's parents reappeared, which reinforces a certain dreamlike quality that sometimes briefly descends into nightmare.

The time that has passed between young Adam and adult Adam is evident, though, and the ensuing action emphasizes how stuck the character is. He's stuck in his apartment, stuck in his love life, stuck at the age he was when he parents died. Mourning, also central to the film, has never ended; it's extended well into Adam's adult life.

When Adam is visiting his parents, he often reverts into more childlike state. He's more open, more vulnerable. Scott sends Adam back into the boy he was at that cornerstone moment when his parents died with the utmost subtlety and a characteristically deft hand. The time he spends with his parents is always colored by the life they could've lived together, the things they were never able to say to each other, and an urgency to say those things on borrowed time, relating to queerness and beyond.

But it's queerness that ultimately links and tethers what could feel like two too-disparate stories — Adam's life in London and his romance with Harry, and his encounters with his parents in his childhood home. In separate visits with his parents, he comes out to them individually, and that coming out is central to Adam's sense of closure with them. Although he doesn't want to let them go when he inevitably has to, in a conclusion to half of the story that evokes emotions similar to standing on the edge of a cliff, he does so with the knowledge that nothing about him is obscured any longer, and that they accept him fully. This scene in particular is so remarkably conveyed by the film's actors, who deliver the emotional catharsis that viewers are waiting for from the minute Adam reintroduces himself to his parents.

In Haigh's capable hands, All of Us Strangers traverses its surreal, ruleless screenplay while feeling entirely in control of itself. No scene in the film's 105 minute run-time is ancillary; each is formative to the film's shattering end, whether it's meant to deepen an understanding of Adam's relationship to his parents or to hint at the final conclusion the film eventually comes to with Adam and Harry. Even then, things are open-ended, but Haigh's indifference to providing logical solutions extends to the film's very last minute.

All of Us Strangers is a heartbreaking, tightly executed fable that meditates on loss, loneliness, and grief by way of four outstanding lead performances, making it one of the best and perhaps most underrated movies of last year. While it doesn't concern itself with rationality, its emotional clarity, empathy toward its characters, and ultimately devastating resolutions make it impossible to miss.