“All of Us Strangers” may well be one of the most luminous ghost stories to have ever graced the big screen. Not that a viewer is always sure that the love story — romantic and familial — is, in fact, a ghost story.
Director Andrew Haigh based his film on Taichi Yamada’s novel, “Strangers.” A “thinking man’s ghost story,” is how one reviewer described the darker work. It was translated from Japanese into English in 2003.
In Haigh’s hands, something touchingly grounded was discovered in the translation. At the core of “All of Us Strangers” resides a haunting love story and a naturalistic ghost yarn. Andrew Scott (the hot priest in “Fleabag”) plays screenwriter Adam, who connects to his long-lost parents at the same time he is embarking on a relationship with a mysterious neighbor named Harry (Paul Mescal).
“All of Us Strangers” has garnered critics’ accolades and awards nominations — for its four leads, in particular Andrew Scott, but also for Haigh’s screenplay. This should keep the delicate drama in the cultural conversation until the Academy Awards nominations are announced on Jan. 23 and on through to the televised ceremony on March 10.
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The film was an audience favorite when it screened for the first time at the Telluride Film Festival in late summer. And its emotional tug was confirmed in November when the Denver Film Festival gave Haigh its LaBahn Ikon Award.
“He was an amazing choice to receive our second Ikon Award,” said Keith Garcia, founder of the film organization’s Cinema Q banner and annual LGBTQ+ film festival, now entering its 16th year. “He’s similar to Coleman Domingo,” honored in 2022 and an amazing acting talent, “who has such a great career behind him but also an amazing future going forward. That’s like Haigh’s trajectory as a filmmaker.”
Haigh’s filmography provides evidence of his ascendant place among LGBTQ+ filmmakers, but also, like directors Todd Haynes and Ira Sachs, cinema in general. “Not just ‘Weekend’ but also ‘Looking’ [the HBO series about three gay male friends in San Francisco] have become staples,” Garcia continued. “But he’s been able to mix in other works that aren’t necessarily queer in their nature but are queer in that they’re made by a queer filmmaker. It’s a very important distinction for us, this notion that the people we want to honor have that diversity and have that ability to be relevant to everyone. ‘All of Us Strangers’ is a nice convergence of that.”
What binds Haigh’s movies is the palpable intimacy he injects into the space between his characters: whether they are two men who surprise themselves by falling in love (“Weekend,” which has become something of a queer cinema classic); a husband and wife in the midst of celebrating a milestone when an out-of-the-blue discovery vexes their rapport (“45 Years,” featuring a fierce Charlotte Rampling); or a wounded teen and the horse he tries to save ( “Lean on Pete,” an under-the-radar gem).
Hauntings are often the stuff of the betwixt-and-between spaces, which are the domain of “All of Us Strangers.” There is the nearly deserted high-rise that Adam and Harry appear to be the sole occupants of as well as the train that ferries Adam to and from his childhood home in a London suburb to that eerie apartment tower.
The ability to move between two worlds or occupy a liminal space provides an apt description of Haigh’s own dual role as writer and director, splitting his time between Los Angeles and London. “It’s like there are two different sides of me when I’m working. Even just in a physical sense,” he said, drinking orange juice at Denver’s Four Seasons hotel the morning after his Denver Film award reception.
“My front room is where I write, and I’m listening to music. I’m in my own head, I’m in my own world, and it’s all in here.” Haigh points to his temple, then adds, “Then suddenly you’re trying to make it for real in a new situation with 100 people and with actors and everybody else’s personality. They’re such different jobs.”
Different jobs that he does remarkably well. The quartet in “All of Us Strangers” does sublime work. Scott carries the melancholy, the need and a hint of hope as Adam, a screenwriter shaped by the early deaths of his parents. Mescal is gently magnetic as Harry, the fellow who knocks on Adam’s door and asks if he might like to share a drink. Foy and Bell offer magical, heartbreaking — and believable — performances as the parents who meet the son they were separated from by untimely deaths. “I feel like my job on the set is to make [the actors] feel like they are the most important people in the room, which they are essentially in that moment,” he says of his cast.
At the Denver Film Festival screening, two patrons seated nearby whispered to each other about the relationship of Scott’s Adam to Foy and Bell’s characters. The proximity in age threw them. It’s true: The man who the couple invite into their modest home in the London suburbs of Croydon is a tad older than they are. Uncanny to be sure, but Haigh plays the reunited family’s interaction with a naturalism that values warmth over spookiness. And he’s at peace with some uncertainty on the part of viewers. It is, after all, a strange world he’s invited us into.
Haigh admits that the writer in him felt at times like he was teetering on the edge of going off the rails. “Constantly, actually,” he says with a smile. But he hewed to writing scenes that made the most sense to him emotionally.
“I asked myself a lot of questions like, ‘Would it make sense? Is that going to confuse the story in a bad way? Not necessarily in a good way?’ There were many times I thought, ‘This really could go wrong.’ But I always knew that it was doing something to me when I read it. And I knew when I gave it to other people, it was doing something to them.”
It is that welling up of feeling, amid the understatedly supernatural, that has marked the film’s first public screening at Telluride, followed up by Haigh’s Denver Film Festival award and deep into the awards season.
Early on, Haight gave the script to his longtime editor, Jonathan Alberts. “You often don’t cry with a script,” Haigh said. “He cried a lot.”