Okay, if you haven’t seen All Of Us Strangers don’t read this first. See the movie when you can. Gay or straight I think there’s something for you in this film. If you keep reading after this then you are spoiling it for yourself…
I had seen the previews for this film and kept hearing the buzz. I saw a lot of people say it affected them deeply. I’ve heard that about so many films, especially films with a twist ending. And I was virtually always let down. Even when I liked the film, the twist was never the surprise it was touted to be. In the case of All Of Us Strangers, I had not really heard there was a twist at all. I knew only the basics that it was a story of a gay man just a little younger than myself but of my generation who somehow had the chance to reconnect with his long dead parents. I don’t know how I didn’t get that they would be ghosts, but that was the case, of course. Adam (played by Andrew Scott) revisited his childhood home and got to see his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) who died in a car accident just before he turned 12 years old. Most of the memories were an amalgamation of childhood events but now with him as an adult and his parents were aware that they had died long ago. So past memories but relived with knowledge of the present from his adult perspective. Surreal is the only way to describe it. Throughout the movie he kept coming back to see them.
At the same time we had what seemed to be a budding romance with a gay neighbor, Harry (played by Paul Mescal), some years younger than Adam but also very lonely. It’s important to know that on their first meeting, Adam brushed off Harry’s request to come in and drink with him.
There were so many moments in the film that left me in tears. On their second encounter, Adam came out to his mother, something he had never gotten to do. Her reaction really was what you would expect from a mother in the 1980s hearing this news. She worried about AIDS and the lonely life she imagined her son would have. When he told her it wasn’t like that anymore she asked if he wasn’t lonely. The look on his face was crushing. I’m sure plenty of other gay men saw this and either remembered a similar conversation or like me, imagined it. I didn’t accept myself until my Mom’s dementia was too far along to make it a fruitful conversation. But she worried so much anyway that I suspect, especially in the 1980s she’d have had a similarly fearful reaction.
On the next visit he saw his father who had heard the news from his wife. So he didn’t come out to him directly but they discussed bullying in his childhood. There’s a moment in the scene where he mentions hearing Adam crying in his room and Adam asked why he never came to him when he heard him crying. Adam’s father admits that he knew that he would probably have bullied him too as a child. They reconcile these painful memories and hug. In a reflection Adam sees himself as a child hugging his father. Another ugly cry. I’ve no idea how my father would have ever reacted to the news. He was not someone who wore his feelings on his sleeves at all. I can’t picture him being a bully per se but I equally felt that there was a gulf between us in how we existed in the world. Despite being physically in the same space the last years of his life, I felt like we were strangers. I’ll never know if coming out to him would have changed that for the better, the worse, or not at all, but seeing Adam and his father embrace was still cathartic.
After a very confusing montage of scenes after Adam takes ketamine in a club with Harry, Adam takes Harry “home” to see his parents. Harry is very confused because he and Adam have talked about the death of his parents in excruciating detail. The house is dark and seemingly empty and Adam’s parents don’t answer the door but Harry and Adam see them through the windows and vice versa. Harry runs away and Adam visits with his parents one last time. They leave the house and go to a restaurant Adam loved as a child. They say their farewells because they feel being with them is hurting Adam. One of the crushing moments here is that they ask if their deaths were quick and Adam lies and tells them it was. Adam’s father died at the scene but his mother lived for days in the hospital half blinded and struggling. Some mention is made of him being older now than they were when they died and it’s as if he’s parenting them now by not telling them about their pain. In a way this reminded me of having to deal with Mom’s dementia which reversed our roles.
Mixed in with those last scenes with his parents they ask him if Harry is special to him. And he admits to them that he’s not sure. He says he’s never been in love before and he’s uncertain if it’s love he feels for Harry or not. Something I could so relate to unfortunately. She mentions that there’s a sad look to Harry and she thinks Adam should help him. After leaving his parents he tries to return to Harry but, for the first time that we see, he goes to Harry’s apartment and he finds his body. Beside it is the whisky bottle that Harry was holding the night they met. And we’re reminded of what Harry said that first (only?) meeting, “I’m afraid to be alone.” So it’s clear Harry has been dead since then. Ghost Harry shows up and it seems to be the first time he’s seen his body and realizes he died. They go back to Adam’s bed in his apartment and Adam comforts him telling him that body is not him. They lie in bed together with Adam spooning him and holding him gently as they listen to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Power of Love” – which Harry asked to hear. The camera pans out and Harry dissolves into light and a few moments later we see a star in the sky. Is that both of them or just Harry?
The Ending of All Of Us Strangers?
The end is very much left to interpretation. There’s no neat bow tying up everything or explaining what happened to Adam. Early in the film Adam, a screenwriter is seen typing in a document about his parents and says he’s writing about them. Some of the reviews I watched after suggest that Adam is alive at the end and everything we saw was part of his writing process. His parents, Harry, all of it a surreal fantasy. Are we sort of seeing what he’s imagining happened? Others suggested that Adam was able to help his parents and Harry move on and that we’re to accept that this has finally helped Adam recover from the twin traumas of growing up gay in the 80s and losing his parents so young. I can see both of those but I think Adam is dead, too. At the beginning of the film when we first see him the fire alarm in his building is going off. That’s when he looks out the windows and sees Harry outside and what prompts Harry to come by and ask him if he can come in. Throughout the film after that Adam is described at several points as having a fever, “you’re burning up.” And Adam and Harry both mention the apartment building being mostly vacant which seems strange for such a large building. I think we saw a sort of limbo between those two characters. Harry died from drugs and drinking in his apartment. Was it before or after seeing Adam the first time? I kind of think he had died before the fire and that first time they were already both dead. That’s why Adam was able to visit his family home and see his parents. He was dead too now and could see them and why they could see Harry even though they couldn’t interact with him. Possibly why his mother also recognized Harry’s sadness.
The open ending leaves it entirely up to the viewer though. I can understand the interpretations others had but for me the clincher was the four stars in the constellation at the end. After Harry dissolved into light with Adam, we see a new star in the sky. As we zoom out a little further there are four stars in a row. I think those are the representing the four characters from the film, the only people we really interact with on more than a superficial level. Of course I guess that could still represent them even if Adam is actually still living and telling the story. I wondered a few times if Harry was someone from Adam’s past who had passed before the film even started and Adam wished for a different story with him sort of like he wished he could have closure with his parents. That would lean more in the direction of Adam writing all of what we saw as a living person.
Really it just doesn’t matter in the end to me. And it’s so rare that I don’t want a happy ending or to have things tied up nicely. It’s not really about what happened next. It’s about the effects of trauma in general. The trauma of things left unsaid. It’s about the knowledge of people like Harry who just need someone to talk to, about people like Adam who have closed off their hearts from past trauma. And it’s still a love story tied up in that. Even if Adam and Harry’s story never happened or happened between ghosts, it was beautiful.
If you watch it though and you are the least bit of a weepy person, take a box of Kleenex with you. I don’t remember the last time I cried so much. I can’t even watch the trailer now without sobbing.
And I don’t think I will ever hear Pet Shop Boys’ “You Were Always On My Mind” again without clips of this film playing in my head. This film deserves some awards and acclaim…