Thursday, December 28, 2023

All Those Lonely, Lonely Times: ALL OF US STRANGERS

Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a palpable portrait of loneliness and the long tail of childhood grief. It’s a film that feels haunted with the intense emptiness that comes from a solitary life. It stars Andrew Scott as a writer just south of middle age who lives alone in a small apartment in a mostly uninhabited new building in London. Though the movie will technically leave this cramped home, in all the really important ways it stays trapped there with him, and within his head. He meets another inhabitant of the building, a troubled younger man (Paul Mescal) with whom he strikes a hesitant romantic interest. They’re drawn together as two loners, clearing their throats to speak like they're unaccustomed to doing so. There’s a sense even as they open up emotionally, sharing stories of their pasts, their coming outs, and their romantic interests, that they’re holding something back. They’ve been hurt before.

The writer is currently working through some of his hurt with an autobiographical project about his parents. He imagines them as they were when he was 12 years old. They were dead before he was 13, killed in a car crash at Christmastime. How awful. Now this writer will sometimes return to his childhood home and see them. Hardly ghosts, they are flesh and blood memories he inhabits, having conversations he wishes he could’ve had, and still could have but for that fateful black ice—reminiscences explanations, apologies, a coming out. The parental presences are projections of the son, but Claire Foy and Jamie Bell play them with full personalities. These aren’t dream parents; they’re not always parroting ideas their now-grown child would hope they’d share with him. They’re real, and unreal. (There's a productively weird cognitive dissonance of seeing actors of roughly the same age playing parent and child, too.) He’s happy to see them, but there’s that spectral distance, too. They’re part of him, and yet not. Here’s a man so used to being alone he holds everything at arm’s length, from that potential new boyfriend to the grief he’s never quite addressed.

Haigh is a filmmaker always so closely attuned to the subtleties of human interactions—the way a shift in information or understanding ripples imperceptibly across a face, and then out across an entire relationship or community. It's in the intimate close-ups and spaces for quiet contemplation. He makes movies in which people sit and talk to each other, revealing as much in their silences and implications as with their conversations. There’s the hookup coupling that tentatively teases the idea of something more in Weekend or the anniversary that teeters on the precipice of a breakup in 45 Years. His works are always careful to conceal and reveal his characters interiority in conjunction with softly naturalistic performances that capture their humanity. He also expert at getting deft, delicate drama out of symbols lesser directors would fumble as obvious underlining. Here’s a movie about a man literally haunted by his grief, and has trouble bringing someone new into his lonely life. That core specificity gives its abstractions their power.

It’s about the disconnection he feels from the world around them, and from some essential part of himself and his past. So of course there’s that huge empty building, and a cozy memory place of childhood memory. The two blur. There’s a mid-80s photo from right before the incident. It becomes a vision of the past with a child actor; it’s also a recreation with the adult. Past and present are joined by the Pet Shop Boys’ swirling synths. That’s a peak of hazy sadness in a movie that’s a most tender, melancholic ghost story. Later, a simple move of the camera swaps one ghostly presence for another, although we might not quite know it until we reflect on it later. The movie builds to a climax of emotional revelation, and nods to the power of love to last. Because the performances are so natural, and the filmmaking so attentive, it gathers considerable metaphoric force. It feels heavy with depressed yearning in every gesture.

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