In the climactic moment of 45 Years, Andrew Haigh’s portrait of an elderly couple whose marriage cracks the week of a milestone anniversary, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) stares through a white bed sheet and into the past. Ever since her husband received news that his ex-girlfriend’s frozen body was discovered in the Swiss Alps from an accident decades ago, he’s been acting strangely. Itching to discover more, she sneaks up to their attic, finds his old projector, and illuminates a worst-case scenario. In an instant, her husband’s photos melt time. Her face, aglow in shock, appears to have just witnessed a ghost.
Indeed, Kate’s obsession with the past and its lack of closure has a haunting effect. She has found a punishing secret she cannot share, cannot escape, isolating and distorting the world around her. It’s a dizzying symptom that Haigh explores more intently in All of Us Strangers, his latest film that functions like a beautiful, gut-wrenching, and disorienting dream. Which is to say, everything feels just slightly elevated—the moods more intense, the colors brighter and somehow hazier, the conversations specifically formatted to reach a distinct destination. The real world, but trapped in a fantasy.
Adam (Andrew Scott), a lonely TV writer, seems to first slip into this fuzzy, liminal state inside his London apartment, starting a screenplay about his childhood set in 1987. Slumped at his computer, he pounces to his keyboard, then pauses and reconsiders, before slumping back and staring into space. Haigh then cuts to him lounging and snacking on the couch, one of the more authentic tongue-in-cheek winks at the writer’s process you will see in a movie. Adam needs inspiration. Instead he receives a strange knock at his door and a drunken advance from Harry (Paul Mescal), his only neighbor in their mostly empty and quiet high-rise. Adam rebuffs him, but won’t be able to much longer.
Eventually, Adam hops on a train to his old neighborhood in Croydon, which might as well be a portal into his adolescence. At a park, he finds his dead father (Jamie Bell), the same age as when Adam last saw him alive, who greets and guides him back home to his worried mother (Claire Foy). It’s been 35 years since his parents slipped out of the house, took a drive, and never returned home. But they welcome him back into their old house so casually, as though no time has passed at all. It’s a delightful surprise to Adam, who spends little time attempting to comprehend the logistics of this inter-dimensional rift. They have no bearing on this unexpected reunion. He is back in their arms again—only much taller and older.
Over dinner, Adam begins to share the details of his modern life, which his parents struggle to comprehend. It’s as though they’ve been preserved in amber, a quality delicately suggested in their dimly-lit kitchen and living room, cloistered by the outside darkness. Haigh’s screenplay is loosely based on the 1987 novel “Strangers” by Taichi Yamada, and the decade’s mores and music (his father plays records from the era) bleed into their conversations during Adam’s frequent visits. Like when his mother innocently asks him if he has a girlfriend, and Adam suddenly realizes she doesn’t know his sexual orientation (he never came out to his parents). The prompt soon begins a series of difficult conversations—about HIV, about being bullied in school, about his father’s absence—that Adam believes will supply him the catharsis he’s been looking for.
As his parents grapple with their past, Adam finds himself more vulnerable to Harry. An initial hook-up slowly develops into a tender romance, though Mescal’s soft and sad features suggest a darkness lurking under the surface. There’s something eerie in the way Adam must relive his childhood traumas and misunderstandings and then explain them all again to Harry, whose self-confidence and self-acceptance challenges Adam’s sheltered and unconsidered sexuality. In one dimension, Adam must modernize and update the people who raised him. “Things are different now,” he tells them. In the other, he explains to Harry the hovering stigma of words like “queer” and “gay” and the internal struggle of using that language. He is eager to build something in an otherwise empty life, but can’t resist his childhood’s glow.
Throughout Adam’s search for resolution (which begins a bit overtly but finds more nuance and self-awareness later), Haigh blurs the boundaries of his portal jumping. When Harry offers Adam a ketamine-spiked bump at a nightclub, his reality collides with neon nightmares and screeching noises that shake the foundations of his two universes. It’s more disorienting than unsettling, though Haigh challenges that distinction with visual elements (an infinity elevator mirror) and a sound design in which songs and score echo into various scenes, like one night, when Adam’s parents break into the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Always On My Mind” as they decorate their Christmas tree. It’s the kind of song that lingers long after they’ve finished singing, fitting for a ghost story whose entities exist like memories that Adam can’t stop visiting.
To his credit, Scott carries a warmth like a lantern inside these chilly environments. Even in Adam’s childish attempts to keep seeing his parents, Scott attracts empathy with lip trembles and anxious eyes, which Haigh occasionally captures bleeding into Mescal’s features or through his large glass window panes, reflecting the sunsetting city below him. That softer side—the glazed looks and muted generosity and care he exhibits to his trio—also emphasizes Adam’s passivity in this experience, even if he feels like he’s been in control. That’s never more acute than in the movie’s destabilizing and perhaps polarizing final act, which isn’t so much jolting as it is heartbreaking. Even in its overwhelming melancholic power, Haigh has made something therapeutic—about longing and holding on and learning to let go. They’re human lessons that sometimes need a paranormal push.
All of Us Strangers screened at the 61st New York Film Festival and opens on December 22.