All the way through All of Us Strangers, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s noble attempt to introduce the complex subject of gay shame to the mainstream, I was reminded of the most famous line of Philip Larkin’s poetry. “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do.” What would happen, poses Haigh, if they got to apologise afterwards?
Adam (Andrew Scott) is a solemn middle-aged everyman, a dot on the London skyline. Struggling for purpose, he travels back to his childhood commuter-belt home, where he somehow meets the parents he lost in a car crash, aged twelve. As an adult, he gets to tell them how his life panned out, coming out first as a writer (“I always knew you’d do something creative”), then as gay.
All Adam wants to hear is that he is and was loved. During a stinging scene in which the family put their Christmas tree lights up, Pet Shop Boys’ Always on My Mind floats across the soundtrack. “If I made you feel second best, I’m so sorry I was blind” acquires gut-punching new meaning, as expressions of sadness and regret are traded from mother to son.
Dad (Jamie Bell) confesses he ignored overhearing his son crying himself to sleep. Mum (Claire Foy) worries about disease, that nobody will like him, that he will never marry or have children, a familiar rollcall of outmoded parental concerns. The seeds of familial rejection sewn young blossom hard in maturity.
His loneliness sends Adam drifting to Harry (Paul Mescal), a younger Northern neighbour with addiction issues, carrying around another depressingly similar gay family estrangement backstory. Like attracts like, in a fanfiction-friendly screen coupling. Despite the seismic progress of British gay culture, politics and law, a generational cycle may not yet have broken.
Not all the big ideas work. Harry is gifted some clever lines (“I always felt like a stranger in my family. Coming out just put a name on that”) but his addiction is handled with bluff, broad strokes. Haigh throws in interesting curveballs about the sexuality we inherit from our parents, despite what they teach us, without ever fully grappling with them. Beyond cyphers for queer identity theory, I was never quite sure who Adam and Harry were.
But this is bleakly handsome filmmaking, with a virtuoso cast and surprisingly cinematic cameo from Croydon’s Whitgift shopping centre. Despite a wildly sentimental, volte face closing frame, which suggests that if we only hold each other closer we can all be stars in the night sky, this film admirably sits amid Andrew Haigh’s honourable portfolio of taking sexuality seriously.
105 mins, cert 15
In cinemas from January 26