Tangled Up: Unearthing Trauma in All of Us Strangers


Adelaide Maddison (she/her) analyses the BAFTA-nominated drama

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By Adelaide Maddison

Whenever I make an impulsive trip home during term time, it has become something of a ritual to go to the cinema at least once. Before my train had even pulled into the station, I had planned to see Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest release. It is comforting and sometimes strange to look forward to going to the cinema like I did when I was little. It was a special treat that only happened once in a blue moon. Now I’m somewhat independent and financially irresponsible, so I can go as I please. As my friend who accompanied me on this cinema trip and I were buying sweets in a nearby supermarket, she admitted that she used to scoop the excess sugar from the bottom of pick-n-mix compartments as a kid because her mam would never let her buy one. It was funny to think that we had also reached an age where spending a small fortune on cinema confectionery had finally become unreasonable.

It turned out Poor Things was fully booked so we settled on All of Us Strangers, a film which I think is best approached blindly. Upon first meeting the protagonist, who is beautifully portrayed by Andrew Scott, it becomes obvious that he is stuck. Adam is consumed by the grief of losing his parents as a child and, grappling with his identity and sexuality, he frequently retreats into the past where his parents occupy his childhood home, untouched and frozen in time. They acknowledge that Adam exists in another universe, indicating that his parents’ presence is an amalgamation of real memories and Adam’s own fantasies. He tells them things that he previously didn’t get the chance to, coming out to his mother whilst she makes a pot of tea. When she worries about judgment and “that awful disease”, in reference to the AIDS epidemic, Adam insists that “everything has changed”, although his shortness indicates that this isn’t entirely truthful. He is asked if people are ever cruel to him and he admits that they aren’t, “at least not to his face.” It’s a heart-breaking scene, mother and son separated by life and death at the kitchen counter. Adam is faced with the possibility of what could have been; his own mother is reluctant to understand a part of himself that had always been there. The interaction illuminates the progress, and the lack thereof, of homosexual rights today. Whilst Adam insists that “everything is different now”, it appears that he is trying to reassure himself just as much as his mother. His uneasiness likely stems from inner wounds left untreated. Although it has been some thirty years since his parents’ accident, he still appears to be reconciling with himself.

Adam’s uncertainty is perhaps best illustrated through his relationship with Harry, who is played by Paul Mescal. He is younger than Adam, and his own experience with sexuality differs as a result of their separate generations. He feels more comfortable using the word “queer”, while Adam remembers it as an insulting remark. Harry appears to be everything that Adam is not at first: confident, unpredictable, bold. Their first meeting is very unsettling as a result. Gripping the door and swaying uncertainly, Adam is clearly reluctant to let Harry in when he shows up outside of his flat. Both men are severed by the doorframe, and it is up to Adam to bridge the gap. It has been debated amongst audiences whether the relationship was real, or more likely another of Adam’s dream-like concoctions. Regardless of interpretation, their interactions throughout the film demonstrate how trauma can manifest in the purest of spaces. Although Harry is gentle and patient with Adamhe struggles immensely with intimacy and still finds himself retreating to his childhood home, despite developing a sexual and trusting bond with the younger man. As the film progresses, Adam finds it harder to leave, demonstrating how alluring self-destruction can be when one is isolated and overwhelmed. He tries desperately to cling to the unknown, unable to let go and step out into the real. In one scene, Adam crawls into his parent’s bed, scared and unable to sleep. As he reaches out to hug his father, the figure is replaced by Harry and Adam finds himself rolled violently back into the present. He is panicked and reluctant to leave his parents, but Harry pulls him into a loving embrace. This constant push and pull between past and present as their relationship develops demonstrates what it feels like to be “tangled up”, how unprocessed trauma can impact intimate connections and force us to confront parts of ourselves that we have neglected or abandoned. The film boldly ends with the couple holding each other in bed, The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood playing as the camera pulls away from them. Despite the many losses Adam was faced with, the self-hatred and the isolation, he is not consumed by it entirely. Real or not, throughout everything, love prevails over all.

Coming home and frequently returning to the same cinema I have visited since being a little girl, felt a lot like Adam returning to parts of himself that he had previously buried. Picking at old wounds is often discouraged as we get older, but All of Us Strangers demonstrated that sometimes visiting the darkest parts of ourselves can be the most important thing we do, so long as we do not dwell in it. Ruminating can be just as harmful as neglecting one’s pain. Adam accepts this reluctantly when he realizes he should no longer visit his parents. Healing is never linear, but being kind to ourselves and letting love in, no matter how daunting, is often the best remedy for anyone who has ever considered themselves a stranger.