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‘Brutally honest’ or ‘ham-fisted cliche’? What does All of Us Strangers say about being gay? | All of Us Strangers

‘It reflects the ignorance of a less tolerant era and the lingering emotional damage this continues to inflict’

Peter Tatchell

If you are looking for a sweet, affirmative, feelgood gay movie, All of Us Strangers is probably not for you. It’s a dark, gut-wrenching love story, with a plotline that blurs reality and fantasy.

Adam is an isolated, emotionally damaged gay man. He’s struggling to come to terms with the death of his parents when he was 12, and to overcome the sense of outsider otherness he feels on account of his sexuality.

Peter Tatchell on Equality Now march, 1992. Photograph: Courtesy Peter Tatchell

This inner turmoil shuts down his openness to relationships and leads him to rebuff the doorstep advances of Harry, a younger, seemingly more confident neighbour. Adam then enters a dreamworld of, what if?

The two men embark on a passionate affair, with the companionship, love and acceptance that Adam has so long craved – until it comes to a sudden, heartbreaking halt. The saving grace is Adam’s parallel imagined conversation and closure with his deceased parents who, he finally realises, truly loved him. A not totally bleak ending after all.

The film’s frank exploration of the often tense and troubled relations between many over-50 gay men and their parents rings true. It reflects the ignorance and prejudice of a less tolerant era and the lingering emotional damage this continues to inflict, even decades later, to the detriment of many (not all) contemporary relationships involving an older generation of gay men.

These men also lived through the trauma of the “gay plague” and mass deaths from Aids, prior to the first effective treatments in the mid-1990s. This gets a passing mention in conversations between Adam and his mother but that’s all. There is no reference to the intensified police witch-hunts in the 1980s and 90s, which also left many gay men broken.

Of course, no one film can cover all aspects of the gay experience. But as well as this brutally honest portrayal of anguish and pain, I wish there were more films like 120 Beats Per Minute’s equally harrowing but ultimately uplifting portrayal of gay love and loss, set amid the backdrop of the fightback against Aids by Act Up-Paris.

There are still too few major movies about LGBTQs who have not been crushed by homophobia. I’d love to see a dramatisation, or even a documentary, that tells the personal and political stories of the trailblazingly proud defiant activists of the 1970s Gay Liberation Front and OutRage! in the 1990s. It’s long overdue!

‘Needed hotter sex, more grit, less sanguine miserablism’

Jason Okundaye

Jason Okundaye with his father in 1998. Photograph: Courtesy of Jason Okundaye

I can understand why many reported finishing All of Us Strangers in floods of tears, but I didn’t feel the same – the film felt as if it kept trying to force emotion out of me. I would’ve been a prime target for its emotional manipulations, too – I’m gay with a dead parent and a lot of straight friends and conscious of the loneliness that may face me when they start families and our lives become out of step.

All of Us Strangers is a desperate plea against the loneliness and dysfunction queer men can experience at different stages of their life and for different reasons. I did find aspects relatable – Adam ages and finds himself still in a flat by himself, unsure about what family means, or what the future holds for him – it feels familiar. But plenty of it was too ham-fisted and cliched about the contours of gay men’s lives.

I often imagine conversations with my own ghost dad, who died before I confirmed my sexuality, and what the film does well is portray the grief that affects gay men who lost parents young. While others may wish their parents could see their wives and children, our grief is complicated by not being sure what our relationship with our parent would be if they truly knew us. But when Adam reveals his sexuality to his mother, her confusions about gay men and women marrying and the “falling tombstone disease” felt too pedestrian and artless to really connect. Perhaps that’s the point – these are ghosts, confined to the language and intellectual constraints of when they died, the tragedy is in their limitations – but I think it betrays more of a problem with the film relying on too much identification from its audience.

Equally, the generational difference between Adam and Harry is expressed through dialogue about their different interpretations of “gay” and “queer” – it feels like the most paint-by-numbers conversation you can write between two gay men of a different age. What about their sexual differences? Any naughtiness? Playfulness? Conflict? Revulsion? The chemistry of the actors means that even the most wooden script is affecting, but I feel that I relate most when Adam forgets how to control his breath while kissing.

My interpretation of Harry is that he died after being turned away from Adam’s door and Adam had been interacting with his ghost the whole time. The supernatural tricks force Adam to confront what he seems to have avoided in his life – both a reckoning with grief, and intimacy. In this sense, as indicated by Adam’s lesser sexual experience and comment of his fears to have sex for “obvious reasons” (Aids is all but named, which makes even attempted subtlety feel lobbed at you). Harry represents those gay men lost who survivors feel some guilt over not being able to save or comfort. Harry is an apparition of Adam’s desire for intimacy, connection and pleasure, but I think hotter ghost sex, a bit more grit, and a bit less sanguine miserablism might have made it feel more real.

‘It just hits different’

Tim Lusher

Tim Lusher in 1989. Photograph: Courtesy of Tim Lusher

The 1980s, when Adam was a child, and I was a teenager, were an extraordinary time in Britain – punk had given the 1970s a thorough kicking, barged aside the cultural gatekeepers and smashed open the doors for a fresh surge of youth spirit. In strutted the art and fashion students, instant pop stars with their adorable combination of fancy-dress hats, glitter-and-glue glamour, paperback-poetry pretentiousness and scrappy charm. I sat on outsized Habitat cushions in my village bedroom, which I’d painted in contrasting browns and fitted out with Argos chrome-and-glass coffee tables, ferns, spotlamps and dimmer switches, listening on my Akai boombox to the spacey future-pop of Trevor Horn – who produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s gorgeous The Power of Love, the track that aches at the heart of All of Us Strangers – and poring over the outlandish chronicles of London clubland in my beloved magazines Blitz, the Face and i-D.

The age was full of pretty faces but had an ugly aspect. The TV – there were only four channels until 1987 – told stories of a hideous, incurable illness and scared us half to death with doomy health adverts featuring tombstones and icebergs. (We also worried about nuclear war and rabies, but Aids was in with a bullet at No 1 on the panic chart.) The people on the TV – who you sinkingly realised were probably like you – were all sitcom stooges and cosy chatshow hosts (“confirmed bachelors”), who understood just how far they could go with the sauce and still retain everyone’s fragile tolerance before, as Adam’s mother would say, people started avoiding them in WHSmith. They weren’t relatable.

You knew only who you really knew – family, neighbours, school friends. You sat in the hallway at home and made phone calls to them – voice calls! Unwarned! – on a landline. There was no internet, no quick or easy way to connect with people outside your world, to hear about a life different from your own.

I went to university and found a pamphlet about the dangers of sex in my pigeonhole (not a euphemism). I closed the door and ignored freshers week. A lot of people didn’t, of course. They met, by chance or design, in real life. A friend remembers that bars had paper and pens so people could swap numbers and arrange a date. He followed a seven-step pick-up routine. (Pass someone cute, walk seven steps, look back and smile, walk another seven, turn again, and if he did as well, go back and talk.) A few people were fiercely, politically out but otherwise it was all rumour and you were as likely to spot a snow leopard.

Andrew Scott and Claire Foy in All of Us Strangers. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

In that early-modern time, which must now sound needlessly perverse to younger people, before the internet, mobile phones and the endless availability of everyone, the world particularly favoured the bold and your physical presence in it. The back pages of magazines – printed, on paper, that you paid for or picked up in clubs – were full of wistful calls for people and moments that had disappeared through life’s sliding doors. “Monday 10am. November. Northern line. Me: brown hair, suit, umbrella. You: blond, leather jacket, black cap. We smiled but didn’t speak. You got off at Goodge Street.”

We’re connected and steely now. I saw All of Us Strangers with a film club of men around the age of Adam. I could hear sniffing around the cinema as young women who could have gone to see Mean Girls or Poor Things watched two men act out their love story; our row looked moved but dry-eyed when the lights came up. Love, longing, loneliness, fear, grief – same for all of us, just hits different.

‘A theatrical schema of invented grief and alienation’

Caspar Salmon

Caspar Salmon in 1988. Photograph: Courtesy of Caspar Salmon

It’s the title that jars. Not the “strangers” part, because after all this is a story of utmost alienation – but “all of us”: who is the “us” in this deeply subjective film centred grimly, defiantly, on one character? Where is the collective, in this study of a man so shattered by loss that everybody else appears as an extension of his own psyche?

Your appreciation of All of Us Strangers will depend wholesale on your ability to accept the varying degrees of artifice thrown at you in quick succession. Andrew Haigh asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and go along with him in one key aspect of the film – that is, in the way that the central character, Adam, is able to interact with the phantasmic figures of his dead parents. That much requires a fair bit of indulgence, since these characters are so thinly drawn and exist only to embody the love that Adam longs for – indeed, the way they respond with so much “acceptance” to his coming out is so painfully earnest that it all gets a bit Legz Akimbo.

But the film also asks for the same benevolence from its audience in understanding the character of Harry (Paul Mescal) as an extension of Adam’s id and asks that we accept the artifice of the set-up whereby Adam, an educated fortysomething gay writer, finds himself totally alone and friendless in some hideous new-build in Stratford, like a 20-year-old Apprentice contestant. For this writer, that is too much to take, and it sets the whole enterprise tumbling down: what should be a beautifully woven fever-dream of loss and grief becomes, instead, a terminally fake concoction, whose every utterance feels contrived, unearned.

It’s true that many queer men have untold difficulties to contend with – loneliness, substance addiction, their relationship to sex – but Adam and his dream figures speak only for him, a theatrical schema of invented grief and alienation, trapped in a cruelly inert, scarcely credible narrative prison.

‘Being gay and looking for love in the 80s, you felt you were often on your own’

Chris Smith

Chris Smith and Peter Tatchell on an Anti Clause 28 march in 1988. Photograph: Rick Colls/Shutterstock

This is a remarkable, haunting film – beautifully directed and acted – and it takes me right back to all the intensity and struggle of being a young gay man in the 80s, fuelled further by a soundtrack of songs from the period. The exploration of the hesitancy of gay intimacy – with a partner and above all with parents – shows how far we have come since those days.

In the 80s being gay was to be outside the mainstream; you had to make your own life and loves; and there was a certain loneliness about your life that simply isn’t true for many young gay people today. There were friends to share your life and thoughts with, of course, but there was still a core part of you that was more difficult to share. If you were really lucky your parents and siblings would be among those sharing friends. But the journey to get there was a difficult one.

Telling your parents (“Mum, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time”) was always a moment of trauma. I fear I compounded the problem, for myself, by telling the world at the same time. It could often be a journey of fear, loneliness, awkwardness, and then eventually it could resolve into acceptance: this is the journey Adam goes on in the film, his parents now as it were frozen in time.

But there’s real intimacy in his parents’ responses, and you even begin to glimpse something beyond acceptance that celebrates Adam’s gayness and the relationship he has now found. Moving from acceptance to celebration is surely the journey we all hope for – and it’s something that now happens (thank goodness) more frequently.

Smith and Tatchell on the march. Photograph: Rick Colls/Shutterstock

You felt you were often on your own, being gay and looking for love in the 80s, and you sense that this was what Adam went through in the film as he was growing up. He goes through it all again with Harry. The security of love and support was what we all strove for, and it didn’t necessarily come easily. The love and support Adam eventually receives from his parents, and the love and support from Harry, are deeply fulfilling for him. And the aching loneliness of loss can be set, rather beautifully, in the context of that fulfilment. Fulfilment, after all, is the goal. It’s a wonderful, must-see movie.

‘Mired in an almost exploitative need to have you weeping at every possible moment’

Barry Levitt

Barry Levitt at Essex Pride in 2023. Photograph: Courtesy of Barry Levitt

All of Us Strangers tries to capture how isolating homosexuality, or indeed any queerness can be, even in a big city that in theory offers more opportunities for queer people than anywhere else. It mostly succeeds in this, but this film seems exclusively interested in gay despair. Haigh’s film wants us to know that queerness and misery are intrinsically linked and lets us know this at every opportunity. Gorgeous, haunting cinematography and great performances can’t make up for a script that hammers the same point ad nauseam.

Adam and Harryare some of the saddest characters I can recall in movies, and while their performances impress, their chemistry together is sorely lacking. The film feels so dreamlike and detached from reality that the central relationship between Adam and Harry never feels genuine. It’s as if the pair only desire each other because they’re both desperately lonely and not because of anything they offer as people.

I was surprised by how disconnected I felt throughout the entire film. There’s a great story to be told here, but All of Us Strangers is mired in an almost exploitative need to have you weeping at every possible moment. As such, it forgets to flesh out its characters and give them the depth required to allow us to care about them. Adam and Harry often feel like avatars; characters with no definable characteristics outside of their loneliness and heartbreak.

I found myself especially frustrated with All of Us Strangers since Haigh is such a brilliant director, and already achieved a stunning portrait of gay love and loneliness in 2011’s Weekend. That’s a film that had a lot more to say about being gay, while All of Us Strangers seems to plumb the depths of queer trauma, ultimately to no avail.

‘Love and loss do not favour one generation over another’

Mark O’Connell

Mark O’Connell in 1987. Photograph: Courtesy of Mark O’Connell

That floral beige kitchen, the Saturday shopping-centre burgers, the Aids ad headstones warning my parents how I might die, the fear that Holly Johnson will out me in my wicker-heavy lounge if I look at him and his leather-clad confidence on Top of the Pops – I too was that doughy, 12-year-old only-child “poof” who could not throw a ball. Idle boomer bias wrapped in an Aids panic was quite the Home Counties starting pistol for a whole swath of us young Adams.

Death and difference were our flash-forwards. It is not just the dusty tinsel, hooped earrings and DayGlo knitwear of Haigh’s queer opus that remind. The tough brilliance of All of Us Strangers is its familiar gut-punch for more than one generation of gay men forced to fear intimacy and love before they even hit their teens.

As the film’s straight world confuses sexuality for identity, Adam is not a loner because he lost his parents at a young age. He is a loner because it matters that they never knew who he is. And Haigh’s canny, almost ruthless flip of this is the haunted Harry. He is a loner because his parents do know who he is. Adam’s parents and their mild, bridge-club phobias struggle to fathom how he could be both gay and happy. A possibly younger Harry-type glimpsed on a train with a bullish dad is already resigned to how his happy might already be out of reach. Almost 40 story years apart, both scenarios are two sides of the same queer experience coin. It stings because our differences are still reinforced. Haigh knows we just learn to get better navigating it.

Despite the app-era of vending machine hook-ups, a whole swath of twentysomething Harrys are less able to walk through a park with a potential beau or spin drug-free and carefree in the red pillar playland that is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Adam is cautious of eventual sex and intimacy. Harry can only start a conversation by offering it to strangers. So, as that Frankie Goes to Hollywood star flickers bright over the end credits, that is why All of Us Strangers is a celestial movie force from above. Love and loss do not favour one generation over another.

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