'My Policeman' - drab historical film's forbidden affair

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 8, 2022
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David Dawson, Emma Corrin and Harry Styles in 'My Policeman'
David Dawson, Emma Corrin and Harry Styles in 'My Policeman'

The first word that comes to mind when we recall watching "My Policeman," the British drama, now available on Amazon Prime Video, is dreary. And by dreary we are referring not only to its execution, but the context that forms the film.

Yes, the movie primarily occurs in the repressed 1950s in England, where homosexuality was still a crime for which many people went to prison, so themes of societal homophobia, secrecy, stigma, and discretion are bywords pervading this sad, frustrating chronicle. But these same stifling attitudes have crept into how this story has been enacted, so the result is a guarded, pessimistic, stodgy film, whose chief fault is a lack of passion in a story that cries out for it.

The background of this project is worth rehashing. Based on Bethan Robert's superb acclaimed 2012 novel (having been reissued, it is well worth reading), her book is inspired by the unconventional 40-year affair of gay English novelist E.M. Forster with Bob Buckingham, a working-class London police officer, including his happy marriage to nurse May Hockey. Hockey also became Forster's close friend.

Forster was made godfather of the Buckingham's son. When, towards the end of his life, Forster suffered several strokes, Hockey took care of him, having accepted that he and her husband had been lovers. After Forster died in 1971, Hockey intermingled his ashes with those of Buckingham.

Roberts reimagines the story in the 1950s as a fictional forbidden love affair with two men, one married to a woman, all intertangled by their clashing desires. She then transports the characters to 1999 to reveal how the past has irrevocably shaped their lives, despite changing social conventions, in their final attempt to find happiness.

Harry Styles and David Dawson in 'My Policeman'  

Fond flashbacks
The movie opens in 1999 Brighton and the point-of-view is Marion (Gina McKee) who is taking care of her friend Patrick (gay Rupert Everett) who has suffered a stroke. Marion's husband Tom (Linus Roache) refuses to have anything to do with Patrick. Finding and reading Patrick's diaries spurs her own memories and there are flashbacks to 1957 when they all first met.

School teacher Marion (nonbinary Emma Corrin, Princess Diana in "The Crown") falls hard for cop Tom (Harry Styles), brother of a girlfriend. He gives her swimming lessons, but also through his job encounters artist/museum curator Patrick (out gay David Dawson) who exposes Tom, then later Marion, to the finer pleasures of life such as art, classical music and lots of high-end scotch. He recruits Tom to pose for a painting, essentially seducing the confused but pliant policeman.

However, Tom still wants a wife and children with Marion. They marry, but he continues his intense affair with Patrick, the latter even tagging along on their honeymoon. Later Patrick will pay Tom to be his assistant on a working Italian sojourn to Venice, with Marion now suspecting he and Tom are more than friends.

Due to incriminating evidence sent to the police, Patrick is arrested on charges of public indecency and sent to prison despite Marion testifying on his behalf. Diary entries point the finger at Tom as his paramour, resulting in the loss of his job.

Directed by gay Tony and Olivier award-winning theater director Michael Grandage, there is a staginess to the proceedings, making one wonder if Robert's book might not be more effective as a play. The other culprit is the screenplay by gay Oscar-winning script-writer Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia"). The "Rashomon"-like analysis on how memory is constructed by the clunky switching to and fro past and present dampens the impact of the 1950s action.

Emma Corrin and Harry Styles in 'My Policeman'  

Also, it's as if the two time periods aren't speaking to each other, which isn't helped by the realization that the 1990s actors, as good as they are, bear little physical resemblance to the 1950s analogs.

Strangely, the film is most successful when there's no dialogue, especially in the graphic but not explicit sex scenes (tasteful Masterpiece Theater sex, not real-life raunchy, messy sex) where we witness the sensual bonding of Patrick and Tom alongside the perfunctory consummation of Tom and Marion on their honeymoon, despite Marion's horniness for Tom, which is not reciprocated.

Styles over substance
And now we must discuss Harry Styles, a major reason for the film's coldness and turgidity. In spite of being a charismatic concert performer, he brings none of that vibrant energy to the film. Perhaps he was instructed by Grandage to act repressed, but he never convinces audiences why either Marion or Tom would fall hopelessly in love with him.

There's an emotional shallowness that prevents us from witnessing the inner turmoil that the character must be experiencing, an enigmatic stiltedness undermining any authenticity. We long for the star magnetism or enthusiasm of "Watermelon Sugar" to inhabit Tom, but instead all we get is a cold emptiness and at-times wooden delivery of lines.

Also, the accusations of Styles employing queer symbols in his onstage performances without explicitly claiming to be gay, fairly or unfairly, can't be ignored. Styles doesn't want to label himself publicly when asked by the press about his sexuality, questions which have persisted ever since his One Direction days.

Styles yearns to be embraced by the straight community and lauded for his liberality toward the marginalized LGBTQ community, while remaining closeted and appropriating queer imagery to enhance his stage shows, welcoming LGBTQ audiences. Yet by avoiding the messy politics of queer equality, thus not offending anyone by coming out, he increases his concert revenue. It is this ambiguity and ambivalence that might be hampering his performance. It is rather crude, but true, to say, the best part of his Tom are the fleeting glimpses of Styles's naked ass.

Urbane vitality
Corrin fares a bit better but is thwarted by having to play someone unlikable and an impediment to true love, particularly the contrived scene when she discovers the secret affair between Tom and Patrick. The movie belongs to Dawson who, as Patrick, gives it much-needed boost of charisma, free-spiritedness, and urbane vitality. Known principally as a British stage actor, he deserves a notable movie career. Perhaps being out allows him to embrace his character without any reservation, in spite of the tragedy he must endure.

McKee, Everett (primarily a nonverbal effort) and Roache are fine, but because their younger counterparts don't resonate dramatically, there is little to work with and deciding who will take care of Patrick isn't very exciting cinematically. Also we learn virtually nothing about what has happened to any of them in the decades between 1958 and 1999 or the consequences of living a lie for so long. There are too many blanks viewers are forced to fill.

The press notes make the subject matter of "My Policeman" seem as if it's a landmark production, but this theme of a gay triangle with one partner married to a woman has been depicted numerous times through the decades. E.M. Forster's "Maurice" filmed by Merchant-Ivory in 1987, specifically dealt with the same issue where the gay Maurice Hall was in love with the ambivalent Clive Durham, who, fearing social ostracization, opts to marry a woman.

And speaking of Merchant-Ivory, it would have been fascinating to see in their heyday what they would've done with "My Policeman" since repression was one of their principal topics explored in such films as "A Room With A View," "The Europeans," and "Remains of the Day," among others. While genteel, they rarely skimped on denial, self-delusion, and deceit, so their character's roiling anguish was never downplayed, as it is here.

We also remember the far superior Todd Haynes's 2015 movie "Carol" which also centered on the repressive 1950s in New York, rather than Brighton, and two women, one of whom was married, a painful reminder of what "My Policeman's" potential might have been in more adventuresome hands.

The trouble is that for all "My Policeman's" artistic stylishness (including its muted color tones), all the characters, with the exception of the younger Patrick, appear restrained, detached, and don't resemble real flesh-and-blood people. This lack of depth and inner fire create a type of at-a-remove quality resulting in an arid, static, inert film, so the audience can't identity with any of the conflicts tearing apart the protagonists. And the plodding, dirge-like pacing isn't obliging.

Even though a bombshell explaining much of the character's motivations is revealed toward the end, it carries no emotional wallop. Unfortunately, because feeling-wise we haven't been invested in their plight from the start, the concluding resolution, which is supposed to be liberating, even heart-rending, comes across more like relief, either that the character's torment might be coming to an end or more likely that this drab, disheartening two-hour film is finally over.

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