What is limbo?
A middle ground between heaven and earth? A holding pattern in life as you wait for something to happen? A state of mind, or indecision really, where you can’t figure out what you want?
The answer might be all of the above as presented in the new film ALL OF US STRANGERS, written and directed by Andrew Haigh. The story, adapted from the novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, stars Andrew Scott as Adam, a lonely London screenwriter who’s trying to write a new script on his laptop in his apartment, as well as come to terms with several issues in his life that seem to be nagging his waking days and sleep state. One night, he meets a drunk and flirtatious stranger in his apartment building elevator named Harry (Paul Mescal) and they have an instant connection. Despite being tipsy, Harry is sweet and boyishly appealing. Adam considers Harry’s proposition, feeling the ache of loneliness tugging at his core, but he decides to resist him for the time.
Preoccupied, Adam takes a train to his childhood home the next day and stares at it longingly from across the street. He sees his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) drive up and enter the house, but something feels amiss. They appear to be the same age as Adam. What’s going on here? Adam returns to his apartment and chooses to have sex with Harry, but Haigh’s narrative begs questions from here on out. Is all that we’re seeing merely in Adam’s head, a fantasy, dream, or even a hallucination? (Haigh has shown Adam indulging in various libations.) Perhaps all of what Adam is experiencing, including a new burgeoning relationship with Harry, is just part of the new script he’s working on, quite possibly a semibiographical tale about coming out and finding his place in the world. Out of limbo, if you will.
What’s fascinating about Haigh’s film is how he offers no easy answers and keeps us as uncertain and off-kilter as Adam is throughout. The cinematography, sound design, and editing veer from realism to dreaminess too, so is there anything we can truly rely on? No matter, the limbo that Adam seems to exist in – not putting his past behind him, unable to concentrate on his work, uncertain of the future of his relationship with Harry – makes for a fascinating character study, all anchored by the marvelous Scott.
Scott is an actor with exceptional skills. As Moriarty in the BBC series SHERLOCK, he could lower his voice to a mere whisper or roar with enough rage to give Anthony Hopkins a run for his money. He made for arguably the greatest TV villain in a decade with his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes’ titular foil. In the BBC black comedy FLEABAG, Scott turned his priest character into a stunning match for star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s heroine, a potentially forbidden boyfriend brimming with charm, sensitivity, and even a bit of swagger. Here, Scott must mostly rely on his face, particularly his eyes, to convey so much of what is going on inside Adam’s head, and he makes the most of such restrictions, giving one of 2023’s most accomplished turns.
Mescal is terrific here too, and continues to do daring, incredible work in his still very young career. Foy and Bell are superb as well, making indelible impressions with their limited screen time. A diner scene where Adam talks to his parents is one of the most moving scenes on film I’ve seen in some time. So much of the story is like that, pushing past the obliquer qualities to hit emotional bullseyes. The moving and often moody cues by composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch only enhance every such moment all the more.
Ultimately, ALL OF US STRANGERS moves Adam out of his state of inertia, propelling him to face up to the various truths about his life. The character learns to help others move from their limbo to deeper understandings as well, making for several unexpected character arcs in this telling. Adam’s progression stands then as a perfect metaphor for Haight’s influence on his audience. He moves us from questions to answers too with his slyly subtle approach, helping us understand how all of us need to leave our limbo and keep moving forward no matter where it takes us.