Andrew Haigh’s film, based on Taichi Yamada’s novel, is centered on queer love and loneliness; it shows how embarrassingly vulnerable and fragile we are at heart

Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, which is still playing in some theatres, impressed upon me a lesson that I have learned with a lot of heartache over the last couple of years: Love is, in its simplest form, the ability to see and, in turn, be seen. Andrew Scott plays Adam, a lonely screenwriter in London, with a traumatic past. In the first few minutes themselves, the dimly-lit frames and scenes carefully induce a tangible feeling of heaviness.

Adam is visibly alone in his life. Time passes outside his window as the lights shift on the horizon, but in his apartment, time exists in a vacuum — takeout food sits morosely in tin foils in the refrigerator, he sleeps on his couch, with no one to cover him with a blanket. Suddenly, his doorbell rings and the nauseating ghetto of loneliness is punctured… He opens the door of his apartment to Paul Mescal’s Harry in a baby pink jumper, drunk and desperate, appealing to Andrew Scott’s Adam to let him in — both into his apartment and, by extension, his life.

Love, the movie suggests, is also the simple but infinitely brave act of keeping the door open long enough for someone to come in, and build a home with us. But Adam closes the door on an unnervingly starved and alone Harry, perhaps to protect himself from his clearly sexual advances, or simply because he is imprisoned by his loneliness so much that the choice to open the door is not even real to him — he must keep the literal door closed too, as a comorbid condition of that loneliness.

Queer loneliness

After decades of struggles, protests and brutalisation, LGBTQ+ issues have become relatively more public and accessible. But we are far from addressing, let alone understanding how queerness is married to loneliness. The film makes sure that despite the bustling crowds around Adam — whether he is on a train or in a club — he is almost always alone.

Adam lives in this menacing high-rise, which is also depicted on the posters, but each window represents loneliness, more than other lives, because for all its splendour, modernity is after all a poor excuse for crippling communal estrangement and mutual disconnection from each other. In one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, Harry tells Adam: “I always felt like a stranger in my own family anyway. Coming out just puts a name to the difference that had always been there.”

The title of Andrew Haigh’s ghost romance suggests that all of us remain strangers to each other, because somehow the act of knowing the other — even within our families — comes at the discomfort of effort. To open our world to the possibility that the other’s own world too exists. Attitude magazine described the movie as “a tender examination of love in the shadow of shame.” Which perhaps also comes close to describing the radical costs of love: at so many levels, it requires us to wade through the complicated shame of vulnerability — which is so tangibly demanding a feeling, perhaps especially for the LGBTQ community.

Everyone wants to be seen, to be found, but for queer people, the experience is often so postponed that they close themselves off from the possibility itself. Or worse, fear being vulnerable, lest they expose themselves to the defeat of rejection or abandonment — a feeling they are already made to feel from a young age. Families often abandon them or stop talking to them out of anger, friends more often than not drift apart, relationships are somehow so much more challenging…

Coming out — the constant confessional nature of it notwithstanding — is one of the most difficult things to do when queer individuals know how keeping the silence and repressing their truth buys them peace at home. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie, Adam comes out to his father, and tells him how he was bullied in school: “They’d call me a girl. Refuse to play with me. Flick drawing pins at my face and flush my head down the loo.” But Adam never told any of this at home as a child. As so many queer children don’t. To avoid their parents the disappointment, perhaps, and so many times to avoid confronting the pain themselves. Silence and loneliness reinforce each other.

To love, to be loved

Adam (as so many of us will identify with) describes his helpless loneliness as a knot in his heart. It is falling in love with Harry, finally, which not only reveals the knot and its smothering force, but also permits Adam the tools to unravel this knot. Often queer individuals develop a structure/ghetto of loneliness around themselves as a survival mechanism. Growing into one’s queerness, then, is so frequently (and sometimes tiringly) about unmaking and unlearning these survivalist behaviours.

There are so few happy queer stories, as Andrew Sean Greer has often talked about. And while Haigh’s movie is incredibly heavy with emotions, there’s something so reassuring, uplifting about it too. In the simplest way, it is a testament to the triumphant quality of love, which even through the worst times — or perhaps especially through the worst times — can protect us… so often from ourselves.

With an almost shocking ability to anticipate the next feeling, and present it with stunning accuracy, Haigh’s screenplay (available to read online) registers moments of tenderness and grief, and the heartbreaking process of healing old wounds with a double-layered plot. While Adam and Harry’s relationship builds, Adam also finds his own past clouding over the tender bliss of new-found love. Adam tells Harry at one point how all the scabs that seem to have healed, really don’t. “It doesn’t take much to be back there again, does it? Skin all fucking raw, feeling how you used to feel.”

Haigh’s screenplay, inspired by Taichi Yamada’s ghost novel Strangers, rallies for a simple message: While love begins with a sort of suspension of logic, it is indeed the most revolutionary and violent act of self-awareness. It makes us weak as it breaks all of our walls, and reveals to us the embarrassingly vulnerable and fragile children we are at heart. But isn’t that itself — paradoxically — one of the most powerful things that can happen to us? Exposing to us the awful realisation that in the pursuit of self-preservation, we complied with the conditions of a cruel world, and forgot that that child exists within us — who just wants to be loved, and to love.

The language of tenderness

One of my favourite scenes from the movie is when Adam and Harry talk about their respective childhoods after making love passionately, but it’s not the sex that builds intimacy as Haigh’s note in the screenplay directs: “More than sex, it’s a mutual understanding of something shared that brings deepening intimacy. Harry leans in and kisses him.”

While loneliness is one of the most challenging conditions of queerness, it seems that its consequences are far worse when we forget to care about ourselves. So often, whether it’s after enduring the grand heartbreaks of a breakup or everyday anguishes of living, we give up on ourselves, because it’s the easiest thing to do. And so often we also convince ourselves that we deserve our loneliness, too.

Haigh’s project with this movie seems to be to remind all of us strangers that we are capable of love, and being loved. That we too can find (or stumble upon) care and safety, even in this not-very-promising swipe-right world of modern relationships… because these are the basic necessities of living and enduring, and indeed what else can we put all our hopes on, if not love?

Every response to the movie that I have read online has been deeply moving too, with so many people writing about how Adam’s story reflected theirs. How the loneliness of the movie became theirs. How the promise and incredible power of love is something they crave too. One review just said that they felt “held” by the movie. The language of touch is one of our most profound achievements, I would argue, because in so many ways it’s also something that makes us real to each other. All of Us Strangers triumphs in this understanding, too.

Much like Haigh’s phenomenal series released a decade ago, Looking — which masterfully explores the parabolas of queer desire, with their crests and valleys — All of Us Strangers presents passion with a careful intensity, fletched with mutual care and love. Intimacy that is more than physical, always. And so a movie about a London-based screenwriter finds resonance across borders because we all experience loneliness in similar ways, and we all know that to be cared for, and to care for someone is what can save us, change us, and keep us going in a burning world. Tennessee Williams wrote that ‘we have not long to love: a night, a day…’ and that ‘we live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.’

All of Us Strangers is the promise of a haunting forever, especially when we are all yearning for a forever that never seems to exist or is not enough. It is, in the most gut-wrenching, but also reassuring way, a guide, not a warning. That love is, in its most profound state, an awful feeling that pushes us to madness. But it’s all we have, and that’s always enough.

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