Tony and Olivier award-winning veteran theatre director Michael Grandage follows his 2016 feature film debut, Genius, with the delicately powerful My Policeman, which world premiered at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival and opens in select US cinemas today ahead of its global launch on Prime Video on November 4th. Based on the bestselling book by Bethan Roberts, which was inspired by the personal life of Maurice novelist E.M. Forster, the film’s poignant screenplay by Oscar-winning Philadelphia writer Ron Nyswaner immerses us in the lives of three characters during two distinct timeframes. In the summer of 1957, we meet Tom (Harry Styles), an unassuming yet captivating man in his mid-twenties who has recently returned to the English seaside town of Brighton after training to be a police officer. At the beach, he offers to give swimming lessons to the rather unworldly school teacher Marion (Emma Corrin), who is clearly smitten with him. As the pair begins to spend more time with one another and an affectionate bond develops between them, their lives become entwined with the charismatic and free-spirited Patrick (David Dawson).
The three regularly dine out and go to the opera together, as Patrick, who works as a museum curator, introduces them to the finer things in life, like the art and music that he’s passionate about. Patrick lives in another world, embodied by his stylishly appointed apartment. While Marion dreams of visiting Venice one day, it’s a city that Patrick is paid to go to on work trips. Tom spends his days enforcing the law, while Patrick spends his evenings at a basement queer bar, the Argyle, risking police brutality and arrest. As a close friendship builds between the three, Marion is unaware of the deep connection that’s forming between Tom and Patrick. After she marries Tom though, she comes to resent Patrick’s continuing presence in their lives—he even joins them on their honeymoon—and suspects that something is going on between the men.
Decades later, in 1999, just a few miles along the coast in an austere and rugged looking Peacehaven, a now late-middle-aged Patrick (Rupert Everett) has suffered a debilitating stroke. He is taken in by Marion (Gina McKee) to be cared for in the lifeless home that she shares with her husband Tom (Linus Roache), who in turn refuses to even see their houseguest. When Marion comes across Patrick’s old diary in the single cardboard box containing his personal effects, it’s an object that radiates with significance for the woman even before opening its pages. When she does, its present tense immediacy takes her back to the 50s as the finer details of how the friendship between her, Tom, and Patrick broke down emerge and why what happened all those years ago continues to reverberate in their lives. An air of guilt, shame, and regret hangs over the dark, moody interiors of the 90s scenes, in contrast to the vibrant, hopeful summer days of their youth.
Much of the pleasure of the film comes from the way that Grandage exquisitely weaves the two narrative strands, gently moving back and forth from one period to the other. The emotional potency of this mosaic of memory is enhanced by Oscar-winning composer Steven Price’s transporting score that pulls at the heartstrings. With the likely distraction of using makeup or digital effects to age up the younger actors avoided, the older actors’ performances are beautifully calibrated to echo the younger actors in subtle ways. Although the film’s measured, unhurried pace might frustrate some, it allows the consistently engaging performances room to breathe. Harry Styles, whose name is above the film’s title in the opening credits and is fast becoming as big a star in movies as he is in pop music, delivers solid work here. He brings an endearing sweetness and vulnerability to Tom along with a natural, easy charm and a slight awkwardness and unknowability, convincingly conveying his reluctant queer awakening. While Emma Corrin and David Dawson offer some rich character work and emotional depth.
My Policeman is partly an intriguing study in shifts in intimacy, with BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Ben Davis’ camera often lingering on characters’ hands, as we see how they touch and caress. We feel the surge of excitement as Tom’s fingers run against Patrick’s as the two men sit beside each other at the opera and there’s palpable electricity as Tom’s finger presses gently against Patrick’s neck when he touches him for the first time. While Tom might struggle to express his emotions verbally with both Marion and Patrick, he says all he needs to in the bedroom. While the lovemaking between the men is filled with unbridled passion, Tom doesn’t even look Marion in the eye as he goes through the motions with her. The beautifully choreographed and shot sex scenes between Tom and Patrick capture the relief and bliss of being able to express their feelings for each other physically; the liberation of lying naked in each other’s arms. It’s a sense of freedom we only see in Marion as she holds her hand in the air out of an open car window. Reflections are a visual motif in the film, and at one point we see Tom and Patrick in bed together through the convex mirror in Patrick’s apartment, a nod to the queer-coded classic The Servant.
By the late 90s, heightened homophobia in Britain (both societal and legislative, evident in Thatcher’s Section 28) during the worst years of the HIV/AIDS crisis has begun to give way to acceptance, and we see Patrick’s nurse, Nigel (Kadiff Kirwan), openly express himself as a gay man. Back in the summer of 1957, England was on the cusp of a shift in attitudes that began with the publication of the Wolfenden report in September of that year, helping to pave the way for the Sexual Offences Act ten years later, which finally legalized consensual sex between men over 21. But when Tom and Patrick fall for one another, it’s still an era when gay men are stigmatized, criminalized, and classified as mentally ill, and the homophobia of that time hovers like a brooding spectre.
The younger Patrick has embraced his sexuality, telling Tom, “one learns to live as one can”, when the policeman questions him about having to live in the shadows. However, the threat of humiliation, violence, and prison is ever-present, and we learn that Patrick’s lover was brutally murdered in a homophobic attack, and we see another man Patrick has a sexual encounter with beaten by police in an alleyway. Meanwhile, the young Tom, who already feels pressure to conform to societal norms, is warned by his superior that remaining a bachelor would mean he’d likely be overlooked for a promotion.
While gay sex remains criminalized in around 70 countries, at home we’ve seen a wave of regressive anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent years on a state level, with a federal “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill introduced to Congress just this week ahead of the upcoming elections. As My Policeman reaches its affecting climax, what lingers is the devastating impact of prejudice, the fragility of our rights, and the speed with which things can change.
By James Kleinmann
My Policeman directed by Michael Grandage opens in theaters on Friday, October 21st 2022 and globally on Prime Video starting Friday, November 4th 2022.