The Lonely Heart of All of Us Strangers
Andrew Haigh's new film feeds on loneliness.
An oft-quoted piece of advice for writers is to write what you know. What does a lonely person know except loneliness? All of Us Strangers opens on Adam (Andrew Scott), amber flesh reflected against an empty London. He lives in a polite new build, with sharp edges, rich coloured furniture and a humourless reception. Adam’s friends have largely moved out of London to raise kids and be close to their families, while he has neither. Orphaned at twelve, he finds himself alone, eating biscuits and attempting to write a script1.
Andrew Haigh adapts Taichi Yamada’s 1997 novel Strangers dispensing with the viciousness of the book’s ghosts to distil a much more primal idea: how impossible it feels to solve loneliness. In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes that there is a “particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of other people”. She is writing about New York, a city she moved to for a man who quickly abandoned their relationship. Adam’s lonely city is London, cold and abstract. His building is empty, or at least it feels empty. David Foster Wallace’s short story The Depressed Person opens asserting that “the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain”. The shapelessness of loneliness is addressed by Laing too. She writes about it as a “state of lack”, a state of being defined by a sharp absence, something “difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise.” What to do then, except to stay quiet.
I bring up Wallace’s story because it gets to its vicious point very quickly: the cyclical, self-cannibalising experience of being depressed. It’s easier, it seems, to write about feeling something. Much harder to write about, let alone visualise, the experience of a void, which All of Us Strangers does elegantly, holding loneliness in its colours, heartless cityscapes and the faces of its protagonists. And reflections, everywhere, as reminders of its protagonist’s aloneness.
When visiting his parents’ old house on a whim, or perhaps to seek writerly inspiration, Adam finds them alive. Memory and reality collapse into one another when he meets his mother (Claire Foy) and father (Jamie Bell), aged and dressed and sounding the same as they did the year they died, preserved, as they were when Adam was a kid, and made flesh once more. Back in their house, in his childhood home2, the illusion of fullness is so seductive for a lonely person. All of Us Strangers doesn’t care much for supernatural explanations, and is all the better for it. Memories are their own ghosts.
No amount of therapy will be able to solve the insurmountable divide between parent and child, neither able to accept the other as a creature independent of oneself. All of Strangers’ most fanciful conceit is the possibility of a conversation of equals between parent and child: painful and true, sometimes full of mutual disappointment. The film, at its most poignant, imagines this conversation as a conduit for the closing of a wound that’s long scarred over. When Adam speaks to his parents, there is a tepid resentment that vibrates just under the surface of Andrew Scott’s performance. How sad and how lovely things can be in the same instant.
Until this encounter, Adam kept his memories in a small box, a litter of photos of the parents never saw him grow up. The structures we are told are antithetical to a lonely life – family, romance, friendship – seemed out of reach. When Harry (Paul Mescal) knocks at his door, boozy and lusty-eyed, it’s no surprise Adam is terrified. In this first meeting in the doorway, they both seem mildly feral, their words scratchy like they haven’t spoken to anyone in months. How to describe an absence? What is its texture? From a lonely perspective, everyone else’s life is full and vibrant and pain-free. Loneliness always feels exclusive to the lonely. While Adam is not depressed, he is resigned. “How do you cope?” Harry asks him, and he doesn’t give an answer because there is none. Adam and Harry, each in their own apartment, which might as well be different planets, incapable of articulating the shape of their lack. Not at first. The only choice available, it seems, is to remain alone, lacking.
When you find yourself lacking, you try to fill that obsessive emptiness inside. Maybe booze, drugs, sex, or work. People, too. When Harry shows up clutching a bottle of Japanese whisky, the stink of desolation is felt through the screen. He is made up of rough edges, a sketch of a character who would be inaccessible and cold if played by someone other than Mescal, who is able to map terrible pathos onto Harry’s jittery, needy movements. Harry, though younger than Adam, is weighed by a similar shame, that of not mattering. Neither of them blame anyone in particular for their feelings of un-belonging. Crushingly, they just accept it. In a Q&A, Paul Mescal described his character as having “a great capacity for love with a great tolerance for his own pain.” Harry is a deeply lonely creature who has become used to dismissing his own importance. One single detail in the film sends me over the edge: Harry’s hand, placed on his own side, hugging himself.
Loneliness sticks to your skin. But one person’s loneliness does not, necessarily, solve another’s. After Adam eventually does let Harry in, literally, into his house, and figuratively, into his life. When they kiss, Adam forgets how to breathe. He needs coaching back into touch, which Harry provides with careful tenderness. Harry’s presence becomes a gateway out of the lack for Adam: his insistence on being present, on talking to and touching him, on asking questions. There are less reflections. Less abstracted, lonely cities. He slowly guides Adam back into feeling things - touch, desire, fun - even when he could not do that for himself.
Laing writes that loneliness creates a “self-protective amnesia”. That, once no longer lonely, the lonely person won’t be able to remember (or empathise with) loneliness. At the end of All of Us Strangers, Adam is still alone, just like at the start, but he will remember Harry - and he will remember the shape of loneliness.
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A writer’s life often involves copious amounts of alone time - and biscuits.
His parents’ house, which is also the house where writer/director Andrew Haigh grew up. The collapsing of memories and ideas made literal in this choice.