Producers: Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Robbie Rogers, Cora Palfrey and Philip Herd Director: Michael Grandage Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner Cast: Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, Gina McKee, Linus Roache, David Dawson, Rupert Everett, Kadiff Kirwan, Maddie Rice, Dora Davis and Jack Bandeira Distributor: Prime Video
Last spring saw the release of Peeter Rebane’s “Firebird,” a fact-based story of a young Russian soldier who fell in love with a fighter pilot at a Soviet air force base in Estonia in the late 1970s; they continued their affair secretly even after the pilot married a friend of theirs, with dire result. The love that dare not speak its name, to use Lord Alfred Douglas’ famous phrase, recurs in a similar triangular form but a different period and place in Michael Grandage’s “My Policeman,” adapted by Ron Nyswaner from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel. Much of the interest the film generates will undoubtedly derive from the fact that superstar Harry Styles plays one of the men.
The story takes place in Sussex, primarily the beach resort of Brighton (where the film was elegantly shot by Ben Davis, the locations, production design by Maria Djurkovic and costumes by Annie Symons offering plenty of rich period detail), in the late 1950s and the 1990s, the time frame shifting back and forth from the one decade to the other. Mousy Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin), a teacher, has eyes for handsome Tom Burgess (Styles), the brother of one of her friends who joins the police force. Anxious to improve his mind, Tom asks Marion for help in choosing books to read. His thirst for knowledge is also incited by a chance meeting with Patrick Hazelwood (David Dawson), the cultured curator of the Brighton museum, who shows him the collection there, as well as at his flat, where he invites the bobby to pose for one of his sketches. The two wind up in bed together, in a scene that includes some nudity while remaining discreetly enough staged not to offend a mainstream audience.
Despite this, Tom introduces Marion to Patrick, and all three become friends, going out together to restaurants and operas, though clearly Marion sees the relationship between the two men as curiously close. Eventually Tom proposes marriage to Marion, and she accepts—though the honeymoon is interrupted by Patrick’s arrival at their remote cabin to cook them a celebratory meal. He also arranges a clinch with Tom in the garage before departing—a scene that Marion secretly observes, reacting with a stern decision to “fix” her husband. Meanwhile Patrick’s safety is endangered by his habit of frequenting underground gay clubs and hooking up with other men (at a time when English law criminalized homosexual activity and brutal police methods were marshaled against it). He also keeps diaries that would prove highly dangerous to him if their contents became known to the authorities.
The tragedy that follows is revealed in flashbacks occurring in the second major portion of the film, set four decades later at Marion and Tom’s seaside house, where Marion (Gina McKee) installs Patrick (Rupert Everett), incapacitated by a stroke, in the spare bedroom, much to the displeasure of Tom (Linus Roache). Tom refuses to have anything to do with their guest and often simply leaves the house for the pub or a walk on the beach with his dog. Marion insists on nursing the stricken man and prods Tom to reconnect with him, eventually taking a step that forces their reconciliation—partially out of guilt, but also resignation.
The makers of “My Policeman” apparently think that their film is somehow groundbreaking, and the bedroom scenes featuring Styles and Dawson do go a bit further than those in most other films about gay men made for mass consumption. (It’s certainly far different from the treatment of Andrew Beckett’s sex life in 1993’s “Philadelphia,” which Nyswaner wrote, which was practically nonexistent.) But British films about the perniciousness of the criminal “stigma” attached to homosexuality prior to 1967 have been around at least since “Victim” (1961), and the trifling amount of skin shown here is now quite tame.
Otherwise with its fastidiously elegant décor and dress the film fits quite neatly into the Masterpiece Theatre mold, and comes across as stuffy despite its desire to seem romantic and daring, with Grandage’s direction and Chris Dickens’ editing adding to the stodgy, often stilted feel. Another element that feeds into that familiar mood is Steven Price’s syrupy score, which (whether by his choice or Grandage’s) takes a turn into howler territory when Patrick induces Tom to accompany him to Venice as his assistant, ostensibly to collect new pieces for the museum but actually to give them time to enjoy one another away from Marion. It’s bad enough that Grandage has a nun walk by and theatrically avert her eyes when she notices the two men caressing in an alcove off the sidewalk; but the whole Venice sequence is accompanied by the strains of Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” which suddenly blares out as if to give a celestial imprimatur to their lovemaking. Not quite as embarrassing, but nonetheless ill-advised, is a scene in which Marion complains to a close colleague (Maddie Rice) about her husband’s sexual inclinations, only to elicit a retort that italicizes her obtuseness and bigotry. In such instances subtlety is tossed out the window.
Insofar as the acting is concerned, much of the attention will be focused on Styles, and one could most charitably describe his performance as adequate, neither dreadful nor indicative of great thespian talent; physically he resembles Ewan McGregor, but dramatically McGregor on an off day Of the others in the fifties cast, Corrin comes off better than Dawson, effectively conveying the fear and resentment simmering under Marion’s seemingly placid exterior, while he takes a stereotypically effete route. Likewise McKee’s Marion is the dominant figure in the decades-later scenes that are sometimes clumsily juxtaposed by Dickens with the fifties ones, though even she can’t invest the woman with much more than generalized warmth and regret. The men are given little opportunity to register anything beyond the obvious—Roache is somber and surly, while Everett growls cantankerously and demands forbidden cigarettes. The two do share a nice final tableau, however.
Roberts’ book, incidentally, was based on the relationship of eminent writer E.M. Forster with a much younger policeman, Robert Buckingham, and Buckingham’s wife May. (Roberts wrote of her inspiration in an article in The Guardian of February 17, 2012.) It’s somewhat tacky, but true, to suggest that “My Policeman” might have been more compelling if it had dramatized the actual Forster-Buckingham story than the fictional one Roberts fashioned from it.