I knew when I saw the call from my mum that it was far too late/early to be good news. Within two hours of being told my dad was in a coma, he was gone, many hours before I could board a flight home from Australia to Scotland. While I suspect he knew, we never actually had the conversation about my sexuality. And obviously we never will.
These thoughts swirled around my head as tears raced like rivulets in the rain again across my face while watching writer-director Andrew Haigh’s latest masterpiece, All of Us Strangers. Adapted by Haigh from Japanese author Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers, it casts a never-better Andrew Scott as Adam, a lonely film writer holed up in a new London apartment tower that appears to be almost entirely empty.
Apart from, that is, Harry, the hunky younger neighbour Adam spies leaning against his sixth-floor window while the older man diligently takes to the street during a fire alarm. As played by Paul Mescal in a similar shade of barely constrained aching as his rightfully Oscar-nominated performance in Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, Harry is a lost soul.
Indeed, he jokes with a wounded charm that he may in fact be a vampire when asking to cross the threshold of Adam’s apartment, full of whisky and lust, one fateful evening. This request, denied, is framed in the blue-tinged ghostlight that dances in the ether, cast from a television screen in which Jimmy Somerville is frozen mid-torchsong.
Adam, whose parents were killed in a car crash when he was 12-years-old, has inherited a fear of intimacy both through this trauma and, later, the long shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when sex could equal death. But even as he holds Harry’s advances at arm’s length, he finds himself catching a train out of London, seeking solace in the shadows that stand still in his childhood home.
If at first Jamie Bell’s leather jacketed man lurking in the bushes nearby appears to be a beat pick-up manoeuvre in waiting, instead this shadowy figure proves, impossibly, to be Adam’s father, appearing as if the very same age as the day he died. Heading back with him to the home they shared together reveals The Crown star Claire Foy as his mum, also somehow emerged from glowing amber.
It’s a tantalising thought, what we would say to a lost loved one if we could steal one more night, or maybe more. One that’s sure to play heavy with tear-slicked pain on the mind of anyone in a similar situation.
But if Adam’s parents, seemingly aware of the strange fracture in time in which they pass their days, can catch up on all that has passed in his achingly empty decades without them, these conversations carry complexity. Mum worries he will ‘lead a lonely life,’ and then, as Adam does, indeed, invite Harry upstairs and gradually into his life, that the adverts she recalls as heavy as tombstones will place her son at risk with his ‘special friend’.
Adam also gets to level with his dad about why he never came into his room when the older/now younger man says he would hear him cry alone at night. And as he and Harry pull closer together, losing themselves in a K-hole of neon nights in Vauxhall, the spectre of Adam’s secret second life may yet tear them apart again.
A deeply confronting, cathartic film wrought in the silvery starlight of Living cinematographer Jamie Ramsay’s graceful camera, Haigh has surpassed even Weekend (2011).
Mescal and Scott’s dance will speak to anyone who has never felt able to be held, to those with words left unspoken and others lost in search of answers never coming. I’ll never get to have that conversation with my dad, almost 15 years gone, awkward truths or not.
But it plays out in my head still. As will Haigh’s terrible and beautiful film, a haunting lullaby caught on a breeze carrying the broken glass poetry of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love and the Pet Shop Boys’ Elvis refrain, Always On My Mind.
All of Us Strangers is released in Australian cinemas on 18 January 2024. It played as part of the Adelaide Film Festival 2023.