Lonely suburban existence is filmmaker catnip, but urban apartment life — especially in new, soundproof buildings — can be just as isolating, maybe more. High in a box in the sky, it’s easy to fancy yourself the last person on earth.

Such is the sort of flat in which Adam (Andrew Scott), the dreamer at the center of “All of Us Strangers,” has chosen to dwell, positioned on the outskirts of London. Alone, forlornly attempting to write a screenplay and wearing a profoundly ugly sweater, he mostly lies on the couch watching TV and eating crisps. From his window he can stare at the skyline. But he is thoroughly apart from the city in the way he’s felt apart from everything his whole life. You get the sense that now, in early middle age, he’s most secure on the outside looking in. Adam is gay; his childhood was tragic; he’s a writer, the kind of person his father always said knew less about the world than anyone else. Loneliness comes naturally to him.

“All of Us Strangers,” written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is loosely based on the Japanese writer Taichi Yamada’s spare novel “Strangers,” about a divorced writer who meets a woman in his building. But Haigh’s work (including “Weekend” and the TV series “Looking”) has often explored the intimate emotional landscape of queer men, and he remolded Yamada’s story into something less chilly, much slipperier, much closer to his own heartbeat.

Haigh spends the first half-hour making us wonder what kind of a film we’re even watching. There are moments when it seems like Adam isn’t just figuratively but actually the last man on earth. But one night, he meets Harry (Paul Mescal, mustachioed), who knocks on his door with whiskey bottle in hand. They’re apparently the only two people living in this strange building. Adam is polite but awkward, and doesn’t let him in. He is comfortable with his solitude — or too scared of what it might mean to disrupt it. But Adam is also trying to write about his childhood (“EXT SUBURBAN HOUSE 1987,” he types) and, almost without thinking, he finds himself on a train headed to the suburbs.

There, time twists, folding in on itself, and when he returns to his apartment, his drab life starts to gain dimension. Tentatively at first, then passionately, he falls for Harry, slowly peeling back layers of himself that have scarred over. Could life be different? Could unlocking his heart be worth the risk? And what would his parents say if they could see him now?

Haigh is a tremendously lyrical filmmaker, and “All of Us Strangers” unfolds in a space that seems like a dream, or a hallucination, pulsing with the rippling soul rush of love turning a life from monochrome to full color. It is, however, a movie with a tricky conceit to pull off, one I am trying not to spoil for you. Let’s just say it’s a spectral story, inherently a little contrived, and thus veers close to sticky sentimentality more than once. I’ve watched it surrounded by weeping audience members while I struggled to stay plugged in as I desperately attempted to rationally untangle its threads. On second viewing, I surrendered to it, and that’s the way to go: just feel your way through, letting it roll over you.

In the end, anyhow, Scott’s performance is what makes it all sing. He’s an extraordinary stage actor, but onscreen, where you can see his eyes, he telegraphs repressed pain without seeming like a cliché. (That’s not to slight Mescal — how lucky to have a movie with two talented, beautiful, sad-eyed Irishmen — but Scott is the center here.) At one point, he is wearing an adult-size pair of pajamas of the sort usually seen on 8-year-old boys (and I promise this makes more sense in the movie), and somehow manages to evoke vulnerability and innocence instead of hilarious incongruence. Every movement he makes and line he speaks reveals a soul longing for the impossible: to see his parents, who died when he was 12, once again, and to know how they’d feel about who he is now.

“All of Us Strangers” acts as a prism through which loneliness and its manifestations are refracted, like colorful light onto a wall. Adam is alone physically, emotionally, mentally and artistically, a man untethered from most everyone. But perhaps his greatest sense of loneliness comes from encounters and experiences that could have happened, but didn’t: the trip he and his parents didn’t take, the Christmas trees they didn’t trim, the conversations they didn’t have about his sexuality, the comfort his father never gave him when he was a boy crying alone in his room.

If you have suddenly lost a parent, or a close one, without the opportunity to bid them farewell and tell them all you never managed to say, then you know just how this feels. You spend your life wondering how they’d react to you now, to the person you’ve become, in part, often, because of their absence. Would you fight about politics? Would they be proud of your accomplishments? Would they praise you? Or, worse, reject you? Not knowing, we try to conjure the dead. We comfort ourselves by imagining them forgiving us and accepting us. We live our lives surrounded by ghosts.

“I’ve always felt like a stranger in my own family,” Harry tells Adam, and once I was able to stop intellectualizing “All of Us Strangers,” the line hit me like a ton of bricks. I think it’s a sentiment more common than most of us admit, even to ourselves, even when we are surrounded by people who love us. We are, we know, strangers in our families and in our lives and our cities and our own bodies, and our life’s work is to move from the strange to something approaching the familiar. All, I think, of us.

All of Us Strangers
Rated R for frank (though not graphic) sexual encounters, some drug use and a lot of sad themes. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.



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