Before filming commenced on All of Us Strangers, filmmaker Andrew Haigh hosted a gathering of his production crew in his childhood home. He gave a tour of sorts, pointing out his bedroom and his parents’ preferred sitting place and sites of especially vivid memory. Out front loomed massive leafy trees, which Haigh believed had to be as old as he was; when he was last there four or so decades ago, only saplings were in sight. Inside, the house looked different too, but that would soon change. The plan was to redecorate the interior to resemble its old self. In function, this was no longer just a distant family artifact. The modest home in a small London suburb just outside of Croydon was about to become the most significant location in Haigh’s new film—a childhood home doubling as a portal to the past.
The personal touches in All of Us Strangers do not end there. Loosely adapted from Taichi Yamada’s Japan-set 1987 novel, Strangers, the movie marks arguably the most expansive vision yet from Haigh, a moving character study that balances smoldering romance and painful trauma—a fitting combination of themes for the director behind both the swoony fling of Weekend and the marital crisis of 45 Years (which earned Charlotte Rampling her first Oscar nod). “To suddenly deal with my own past at the same time as I was telling a story about someone else dealing with their past—I’m not sure if it was foolish, emotionally or mentally,” Haigh tells me. “But it was a really strangely cathartic experiment.”
The film follows Adam (Andrew Scott), a 40-something writer living alone in a nearly deserted high-rise outside of London. His neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) drunkenly flirts with him one night, a steamy, if messy, meet-cute that develops into a tender relationship. Between encounters with Harry, Adam finds himself drawn back to where he grew up. In that house left behind by the family long ago, he finds his parents (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) getting on with life—odd, as his parents died in a tragic accident when he was a child. He’s hardly thrown off by their presence or their youthfulness; he finds comfort in merely being able to see them again. To tell them he’s gay. To understand them as adults. To imagine their bond that never could be. “It’s an opportunity to revisit your parents long after they might have passed and to have a dialogue,” says Oscar nominee Graham Broadbent (The Banshees of Inisherin), who, alongside producing partner Sarah Harvey, first brought Haigh the book to adapt. “What would you tell your parents about your life if you were an adult and they were no longer with us?”
That question of infinite possibility meets compelling answers in Haigh’s hands. “I wanted it to all feel very integrated, like our memories do and like how we go through life—the pain we carry around is always just there, hidden, and it can come up and feel incredibly real,” the director says. “It was always about that feeling when you’re just about to fall asleep or you just wake up from a dream—when everything feels a little bit strange.” As such, he’s reluctant to call this a ghost story—so save your “Weekend with ghosts” memes, Haigh fans—even as his trademark naturalism gets challenged by the film’s conceit. On the one hand, sure, we have a character speaking directly with his deceased parents. On the other, we have a familiar Haigh setup rendered in a bracing new context—the hookup that turns into something more.
Sex and strangers have long been intrinsic elements of Haigh’s filmmaking. In Weekend, a one-night stand provides the impetus for a spellbinding saga of longing and intimacy; HBO’s Looking charts the growth and regression of its single gay San Franciscans through raw, honest portraits of their sexual experiences. Yet in All of Us Strangers, it all hits differently—becoming more emotional, more revealing, definitely more mysterious. “I’ve been more objective in how I’ve shot sex scenes in the past,” Haigh says. “Here, I really wanted to feel the subjective nature of having sex and what it feels like—the nervousness and the excitement and the physical sensation of being touched by someone else, and what that does to you.”
The two performers at the romance’s center bring that intention to beautiful life. Scott inhabits a character just coming to terms with his buried shame, while Mescal takes on a more enigmatic figure who unveils himself carefully. The actors commit wholly—sweetly, deeply, explicitly—to the intensity of the physical connection that develops between Adam and Harry. “There was chemistry between the two of them literally the second I saw them together,” Haigh says. “Both of them were pretty fearless. There was no sense of them being afraid of approaching those scenes. They knew how important they were.” That importance particularly relates to Adam’s greater journey in All of Us Strangers. It’s no coincidence the sex feels unique, even special, with Harry. That bond proves inextricably linked with his posthumous family reunion.
The romantic story and the family story don’t compete for space in All of Us Strangers; rather, they deftly coexist in a kind of metaphysical harmony. “I wanted everything we see to feel like it is a manifestation of Adam's state of mind,” Haigh says. He executed this goal carefully and thoroughly—from his striking use of nostalgia-friendly 35mm film to his playfulness with perspective—but Scott’s skill as a performer serves as the real glue. His work is openhearted, incredibly poignant, and dramatically rigorous. And somehow it’s his first true lead role in a film, following years of lauded stage work and that fan-favorite turn as Hot Priest in Fleabag. “This whole film sits squarely on his shoulders, and he clearly had it in him, but it’s beautiful to see it,” says Broadbent. Haigh adds that Scott “hasn’t had this kind of central role—and I always felt like he should have that central role.”
Haigh made no secret during filming of the personal stakes within All of Us Strangers. The feeling of growing up gay in the ’80s weds the movie’s two strands as Adam grapples with coming out to his parents at long last. Haigh intended to capture that period not only as he remembered it, but also as Scott, who is gay as well, could reflect on it too. “I’m not one of those people who thinks you have to cast a queer actor in a queer role, but for this role, I did want to because I was trying to unpick some nuances of a certain generation of gay people,” he says. “I needed someone that could understand that and have those conversations with me. I didn’t want it to feel like I was trying to explain what it was like.”
And so you get Adam and Harry softly discussing their upbringings, past partners, understandings of love and sex, that pang of regret they can’t seem to shake. You get a dizzying scene in a pulsating gay club that seems to throw both of them out of time. You get a distinctive slice of queer life, realized by a director who’s learned how to carve them out without compromise. “I make no bones about the fact that this is a specific experience I’m telling, of a man in his late 40s who’s gay,” Haigh says. “I’m trying to tell something that I understand, that is my experience of the world, and that is authentic to me.”
This is a hallmark of Haigh’s filmography. Extrapolating his past through that lens, however? Very new territory. “I didn’t have the happiest of childhoods—childhoods are complicated, especially when you’re gay, and I think a lot of the story is dealing with those elements,” Haigh says. “You have to deal with those things when you’re back in that environment.”
All of Us Strangers is not autobiography—Haigh’s parents are not dead, for one thing—and it’s also infused with the memories of Scott and the rest of the cast. Yet the fuel here is Haigh going on the same kind of quest as his hero: to return to where he came from and unearth the stuff bubbling from within. An old photo of Adam’s mom in the film is in fact a photo of Haigh’s mom, with Claire Foy photoshopped in. Foy and Jamie Bell both bear a certain resemblance to their real-life counterparts. “I was trying to cast someone that made sense for Adam's parents, but I was also trying to cast someone that made sense for my parents,” Haigh says. “And I wanted it to be Claire’s story, and I wanted it to be Jamie’s story. It’s not just about being a child, it’s also about being a parent and about being a lover and being loved.” Foy and Bell play the parts with a kind of impenetrable affection, processing everything they learn about their son as they vie to comfort him, beyond the grave, in adulthood.
The notion of Scott playing the child of Foy and Bell, who are younger than him, could sound gimmicky or even ridiculous. One fascinating scene finds Adam in his kiddie pajamas late at night, crawling into bed with his parents like a child shaken by a nightmare. It’s surprisingly resonant. Adam asks, “Is this real?” His mother replies, “I don’t know. Does it feel real?” To reiterate, this takes place on a set meant to resemble Haigh’s parents’ bedroom. “It was a very unusual, emotional experience, filming a scene that was in my parents’ old bed,” the director says. Scott exudes a miraculously devastating, childlike pain through it all. “I was amazed by the way that he fluctuates between being an adult and a child,” Haigh says. “When he’s in the scenes with his parents, he feels young; when he’s not, he’s older again. That’s a very hard thing to pull off.”
The vulnerability of Adam is a testament, perhaps, to Haigh’s vulnerability in making this movie, all the way through to the explosive twist of an ending. The director wasn’t afraid of showing that part of himself to allow his collaborators to similarly open up and reach that level of artistic transparency. He wanted to make a movie about “the nature of family,” of how those relationships shape us into adulthood, and about a love affair—and in turn, about “how those things inform each other and how they affect each other.” It’s an epic meditation on how love, however fleeting or lasting and in whatever shape it takes over time, makes up who we are—a theme Haigh has been working toward for his whole career.
“Weekend was about relationships, and 45 Years was about families,” Broadbent says. “In this one, he brought them together.”
All of Us Strangers will screen at the New York Film Festival before Searchlight Pictures releases the film in theaters on December 22. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage, featuring first looks and in-depth interviews with some of this coming season’s biggest contenders.