• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Grief as a Refusal: An Exploration of Andrew Haigh’s All of us Strangers

ByOlivia Laughton

Feb 14, 2024
"Andrew Scott TV BAFTAs 2019" by Paulae is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

‘It hasn’t been nearly long enough.’ ‘It never could be, could it?’

In her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’, Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a conception of grief into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. All of us Strangers doesn’t follow this narrative. It poses a question so uncomfortable we can barely ask it of ourselves: what happens if we never leave that first stage, what happens if we never leave denial?

When explaining his parents’ death, Andrew Scott’s Adam reasons with temporal logic: ‘it’s okay, it was a long time ago.’ His enigmatic, mutable, yet intimate lover Harry pierces through this, ‘I don’t think that matters.’ Harry’s right, of course. Andrew Haigh’s ‘mercurial grip’ on time dislocates the audience just as it does to Adam, whose grief, identity, and sense of belonging are trapped and lost in his refusal to accept the tragedy that defined his childhood and adulthood respectively.  

Adam’s compartmentalising or admonishment of grief is a direct opposition to the reality of his illusions. A screenwriter in the process of writing his parents, much of the film is a motif of dialogues between them. Although Adam has grown up, his parents remain entrapped in their younger, and final versions of themselves. For a few minutes the audience can’t understand this dynamic. And when we do, it hits us like a bomb. 

Adam’s parents can’t perceive the world he lives in or understand his sexuality or his life. Their conversations are difficult. We watch the full-grown Adam in his childhood pyjamas, celebrating Christmas, eating cake, climbing into bed between his parents, his need for their comfort a curious hybrid between his increasing age and ever eternalised youth. 

The illusory nature of Adam’s time spent in his childhood home is a metaphor for his denial of death. When he asks his mother whether their interactions are ‘real’, her answer, in posing the question, pierces the heart of All of us Strangers: 

‘Does it feel real?’

With such an encapsulating of the entire narrative, the audience remains on uncertain footing throughout. We are caught between the beautiful potency of Adam and Harry’s sexual relationship, the messy drugs and dizzying music, the abrasive rattle of the trains which take Adam home and all the while the aching, aching loneliness of the abandoned tower block in which they live. 

The liminality of life and death, not so much a reality as an illusion, forces us to accept that we cannot comprehend, cannot articulate where those boundaries are formed. 

Is Harry always dead? Is Adam dead too? 

Half a bottle of whisky, a fire alarm, an icy road. And yet all the characters stand before us, as real and raw as if we recognised them in our own lives. 

Grief as refusal is the only form Haigh allows us to know. 

I’m lying in the lap of my best friend as the credits end. Behind us, a theatre worker picks up fallen popcorn and candy wrappers between the seats. The lights have been up and the audience gone for ten, twenty minutes now. Outside this room the world continues. Other films are watched, and bags of popcorn eaten; across the city buses are caught, meals are eaten, conversations spoken; people sleep, laugh, have sex, fall in love and fall out of it. People are missing friends, missing lovers, and missing parents too.  

Haigh pulls us together and then spits us out right apart. 

All of us are strangers: from each other and from ourselves.

Andrew Scott TV BAFTAs 2019” by Paulae is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.