‘All of Us Strangers’ soars at Telluride, but ‘Saltburn’ barely leaves a mark

Two men, bathed in pink light, hug in a nightclub.
Andrew Scott, left, and Paul Mescal in the movie “All of Us Strangers.”
(Parisa Taghizadeh / Searchlight Pictures)
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A film festival is a small world, and few worlds feel smaller, or more disarmingly intimate, than the one that comes together here in Telluride every fall. For a few days stretching into Labor Day weekend, filmmakers, decision makers, cinephiles and more than a few entertainment journalists descend on — or rather, ascend to — this small town in the Colorado Rockies, in search of cooler climes and invigorating mountain scenery. And also, of course, in search of movies — new and old, anticipated and unheard of, some destined to fly under the radar and others bound to trigger an avalanche of Oscar hype.

Not that Telluride would admit to perpetuating anything so coarse as hype. The festival, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, has spent years quietly positioning itself as a purer, lower-key corrective to its splashier fall rivals like Venice, which kicked off two days earlier, and Toronto, which rolls out its red carpet next week. There are no red carpets here in Telluride, and no official “premieres” either, at an event that likes to disdain industry language and other film-festival niceties. Here every movie is just called the “Show” — a word that, as the festival’s organizers are fond of noting, means to put you in mind of a conjuring trick. Behold the alchemy that can transform a humble town into a kind of summer camp for cinephiles, a place where old-fashioned movie magic flows in abundance.

You can scoff at the earnestness of that notion, and also perhaps at the mildly disingenuous pose of a festival as premiere-driven and buzz-dependent as any other. But sometimes, the promise of movie magic is exquisitely fulfilled, and your reservations can be disarmed. A film like “All of Us Strangers,” the haunting and heartbreaking new drama from the English writer-director Andrew Haigh (“45 Years,” “Lean on Pete”), has the power to disarm every cynical thought you might wield against it. A love story and a ghost story, it marries sly conceptual daring and fearless emotionalism with masterly assurance.


“All of Us Strangers” begins with a chance encounter between a quiet, diffident screenwriter named Adam (superbly played by Andrew Scott of “Fleabag” fame) and a younger man named Harry (Paul Mescal), both of whom have just moved into a enormous new London high-rise. They appear to be the only tenants so far, and that shared solitude soon pushes them into each other’s arms. Like “Weekend,” Haigh’s wonderful 2011 debut feature, the movie subtly traces the emotional and erotic contours of a relationship between two very different men, in the process demolishing a few monolithic assumptions about gay life and identity, sex and politics.

A man and a woman decorate a Christmas tree as a boy looks on.
Jamie Bell and Claire Foy in the movie “All of Us Strangers.”
(Chris Harris/Searchlight Pictures)

There, however, the similarities largely fall away. Haigh adapted the screenplay from “Strangers,” a 1987 novel by the Japanese author Taichi Yamada, and while he has shifted the setting to the present-day U.K. and extended the title, he largely retains the book’s spooky-somber metaphysics. As Adam tries to settle into his new home, he finds himself repeatedly drawn back to the small town where he grew up, and one night he stumbles upon his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, both terrific), whom he appears not to have seen in some time. Their reunion is so cheerful and matter-of-fact — they pick up right where they left off — that it takes you a second to realize his mum and dad are dead, having perished in a car crash when Adam was only 12.

Rest assured, I’ve spoiled nothing. What follows is a series of visits in which Adam and his parents embark on the kinds of conversations that fate has denied them. With the wisdom of age and the benefit of hindsight, Adam can finally come out to them, reckon with past wounds and enlighten them about shifting attitudes about queerness over the last few decades.

All this takes shape, at least initially, as a creative exercise, an attempt by Adam to unblock himself as a writer, a conceit that ingeniously suspends your emotional disbelief: If his reconciliations with his parents sometimes seem too easy and too awkward by turns, it’s because the screenwriter in him is still working them out. But the fact that what we’re seeing is all happening in his head — though like any good ghost story, the movie compels you to ask, “Or is it?” — only deepens Adam’s sense of longing, as well as our sympathetic anguish at what he’s lost.

“All of Us Strangers” is a balancing act of extraordinary gossamer-thin delicacy: It’s a quasi-supernatural coming-of-age drama, a meditation on loneliness and an achingly tender and sensual romance, all playing out in the same enveloping minor key. Adam keeps toggling between his parents and Harry, moving from the warm Christmas-tree lighting of a family home to the steel and shadows of an apartment building that comes to exert its own eerily haunting power. His story becomes a kind of tug-of-war between past and present — a duality that evaporates, in the almost unbearably moving final scenes, into what feels like an evocation of eternity.


The four actors register all the more forcefully for having the only speaking roles in the entire movie. Foy and Bell are both mercurial enough to keep the movie’s ghostly conceit more than afloat; cycling through joy, sadness, surprise and resignation, they’re painfully convincing as a mother and father reckoning with their own all-too-forgivable mistakes. As the outgoing but troubled Harry, Mescal remains peerless at suggesting hidden psychic damage; more than once you may flash back on his very different work in “Aftersun,” another exquisite tale of memory, loss and parental imperfection. As for Scott, he holds you and carries every scene with offhand wit and tremulous vulnerability. It’s a beautiful performance in the kind of overdue lead showcase that, I hope, portends many more to come.

A man in a red robe stares out at the aftermath of a wild house party on a lawn.
Barry Keoghan in the movie “Saltburn.”
(Amazon Studios)

Set to be released Dec. 22 through Searchlight Pictures, “All of Us Strangers” sent Telluride into early raptures Thursday night. A more divided reception greeted Emerald Fennell’s glossily mounted but increasingly laborious and empty “Saltburn,” which held its first screening the same evening. And on paper at least, this dark comedy of manorly manners suggests a cynical rejoinder to Haigh’s otherworldly humanism: It’s also written and directed by an English filmmaker, set around a cavernous piece of real estate and centered on one man as he forges a tentative, increasingly tempestuous bond with another. (Both movies also strategically deploy Pet Shop Boys on the soundtrack; here, too, “All of Us Strangers” has the upper hand.)

“Saltburn,” however, isn’t a love story; it’s a wannabe-twisted thriller about dark fantasies, brutal class disparities and thwarted lust, especially the lust for power and attention. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an unloved but wily Oxford student, develops an obsessive attachment to Felix (a very good Jacob Elordi, from “Euphoria”), a classmate who eclipses him and just about everyone else in beauty, wealth and popularity. Worming his way into Felix’s good graces with compulsive lies and tactical favors, Oliver scores an invitation to spend the summer at Saltburn, the palatial countryside estate where Felix lives with his studiedly eccentric clan. (They’re played by Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver and, in the movie’s sharpest performance, Rosamund Pike, nailing the appalling blitheness of the idle rich like no one else here.)

The setup is basically “Brideshead Revisited” by way of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” though Keoghan’s unsubtly creepazoid performance is reptilian without being remotely chameleon-like. Oliver might well freak you out, whether he’s tonguing a semen-slicked bathtub drain, staining his fingers with menstrual blood or matching wits with a rival for the family’s affections (Archie Madekwe, offering a more compelling portrait of seething class resentment). But there’s nothing particularly insinuating about Keoghan’s dead-eyed stares, and nothing persuasive about his attempts at charm. It’s all too painfully obvious that the dark side of Oliver’s desire for Felix will eventually spring violently into the open, and that obviousness soon chokes the life out of the movie’s every elegantly boxy frame.

Had it arrived four years earlier, amid the spate of class-conscious thrillers like “Parasite,” “Knives Out” and “Joker,” Fennell’s version of an eat-the-rich satire might have seemed at least thematically au courant. But emerging in 2023 (it opens Nov. 24 in limited release before expanding Dec. 1), her evisceration of upper-class cluelessness barely lands. The closing stretch is interminable: a grating display of misanthropic excess, with two jejune sight gags (one of which can only be described as a grave violation) that speak less to a sociopath’s psychology than a filmmaker’s self-intoxication. I didn’t love Fennell’s Oscar-winning debut feature, “Promising Young Woman,” which also felt overly infatuated with its own daring, but it had at least enough tonal twists and surprises to keep you off-balance. “Saltburn” is shocking only in its puerility. No sophomore effort should feel this sophomoric.