What is it about the English seaside and suppressed yearning? Is it the bracing winds? The overcast skies? The white cliffs and rocky beaches, as bloodless as the emotional lives of characters who are terrified of their heart’s true desires? The beaches of Brighton in My Policeman are slightly sunnier than those of, say, Dorset in 2020’s Ammonite, but the chilling effect is the same.
To be fair, it’s not all the weather’s fault. Sunshine or fog, a gay man openly expressing his sexuality in 1950s England could land him in prison, or worse. The guarded and pessimistic mood that results from this oppression permeates this melodrama, all the way down to its muted color palette. It’s a film that comes by its stodginess honestly: Violently repressed mid-century Brits who frequent art galleries as a way of cloaking their class anxieties in the guise of “betterment” are bound to be dull. But the film has nothing to add to the canon of depressing LGBTQ+ period dramas that’s profound enough to overcome the story’s dreary packaging. (It hits select theaters this weekend and drops on Amazon on November 4th.)
There are a few points of novelty livening up My Policeman, namely the casting of mega-pop star/fledgling movie star Harry Styles as the title character. He has an endearingly crooked smile, and a face that’s been proven to set hearts aflame. (Just witness the tabloid drama currently surrounding Styles and Olivia Wilde, director of his other big movie role of 2022.) So he does make a believable apex for the love triangle that drives the story. Beyond embodying a plausible motivation for two people to waste their lives in pursuit of a man they can never really have, however, the “Watermelon Sugar” singer adds little to the dramatic proceedings.
The movie is adapted from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel of the same name, which fictionalized the real-life relationship between novelist E.M. Forster, his police officer lover, and the policeman’s wife. The film begins in 1999, as retired schoolteacher Marion (Gina McKee) helps an old friend named Patrick (Rupert Everett) settle into the spare room of her tidy cottage on the Sussex coast. Patrick recently suffered a stroke, and Marion tends to him assiduously, even allowing him a forbidden cigarette once in a while. All the while, Marion’s husband Tom (Linus Roache) hovers around this somber scene, taking his dog on long walks and avoiding Patrick for reasons that are initially unknown.
My Policeman uses a handful of narrative contrivances to draw out the tragic backstory behind this gloomy trio’s fraught dynamic. Chief among these is a diary from 40 years ago, which Marion conveniently finds in the box of effects her old friend brought along with him from the hospital. The book details the chance meeting and subsequent romance between a much younger Tom (Harry Styles) and Patrick (David Dawson), which began before Tom started courting Marion (The Crown‘s Emma Corrin) and continued after Tom and Marion were married.
Patrick’s account of this lusty secret affair puts some of Marion’s memories — Tom’s disappointingly pragmatic marriage proposal, for example — in a new light. This is a film where the sex scenes communicate vital information about the characters and their relationships: Styles and Dawson take their time, lounging around Patrick’s apartment in the nude afterwards, while Styles and Corrin’s coupling is perfunctory and fully dressed. But Marion is not the oblivious innocent she seems to be.
My Policeman makes gestures towards a Rashomon-esque exploration of the construction of memory, cutting between the characters’ shared present and their different perspectives on the past as it methodically dispenses details about the events that led up to the current awkwardness at Tom and Marion’s cottage. But it loses steam in its most interesting thread midway through, replacing it with clunky grandstanding. Combined with a third-act twist that’s obvious to everyone except the characters, this is a film is running on fumes by the time it reaches its tearjerker ending.
The word “ordinary” carries a lot of weight here. So does the word “policeman,” which is uttered with hard consonants and, often, a hint of a threat. Director Michael Grandage inserts visual and verbal clues about the class differences — and, therefore, power imbalance — between the two men. Working class Tom drinks beer and falls asleep at classical recitals, while posh Patrick is a scotch-and-opera aesthete. But Tom does have one advantage over Patrick, and that’s the protection afforded him by his uniform and marital status. Tom doesn’t visit underground gay bars, like Patrick does. And if he were to be swept up in a raid at one of these clandestine watering holes, his colleagues could lose the paperwork before his case went to trial.
If Tom experiences profound inner conflict about his dual life, or feels as if he’s being unfair to his lovers by stringing both of them along in different ways, it’s not reflected in Styles’ performance, which rarely goes beyond trading cocky ease (a state of being he seems comfortable with) for awkward silence (a state that he does not). His posture and expression in these serious moments are more like a contrite child than a tortured adult, and the soul-corroding effects of bigotry and societal censure seem to have missed him entirely. Now, it’s entirely possible for a man to take his privilege for granted and behave in selfish ways. But observing the interiority gap between Styles’ shallow performance and Dawson’s rich one, wondering if there are turbulent waves under Tom’s placid surface is giving the actor who plays him too much credit.