An involuntary snort of laughter escaped me just as the illicit gay union at the heart of My Policeman hit its most torrid peak. Harry Styles as Tom Burgess, the 1950s British copper who gives the film its title, has snuck off for a few days’ romantic idyll in Venice with his secret lover, urbane museum curator Patrick Hazelwood, played by David Dawson like he’s just stepped out of Brideshead Revisited. Patrick is draped across a hotel bed in what appears to be post-coital bliss, dreamily contemplating the sculptural curves of Tom’s buttocks as he stands smoking naked at the window. In precisely that moment, the choir singing Vivaldi’s “Gloria” explodes in collective euphoria.
It would be nice to think this was some music supervisor’s idea of, ahem, a cheeky joke, to direct a hymn of glorious praise at the shapely bum of one of the most desired men on the planet. But since there are few other signs of sly humor in this entirely too tasteful affair, probably not. Still, it will play just fine on Amazon, where it streams from Nov. 4, following an Oct. 21 theatrical run.
The Bottom Line
Wish I was wild about Harry.
Styles raised eyebrows on queer Twitter some weeks back by straightsplaining that man-on-man sex in mainstream movies was entirely too aggressive, and that My Policeman was here to show us some tenderness. And let’s face it, the pop star-turned-actor is the main reason anyone’s going to be interested in this pedestrian adaptation of Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel, which does little to show that celebrated theater director Michael Grandage can translate his stage skills to the screen.
So how’s the sex? Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner famously confined the love between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas’ characters to a chaste peck in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. Or perhaps the studio dictated that prudishness. Nyswaner and Grandage here let the lads get nude and sweaty, rolling around in a golden haze — lots of arched backs, hungry hands and eyes dilated in rapturous transport — that should at least set Styles fans’ hearts aflutter, albeit while remaining fairly decorous. But stodgy storytelling and clunky shifts between the drama’s two time periods dim the afterglow.
Roberts’ book was inspired by the longtime love affair between early 20th century novelist E.M. Forster and working-class London police officer Bob Buckingham, which continued for four decades despite Buckingham being happily married to nurse May Hockey. When Forster had multiple strokes later in life, Hockey took care of him, accepting the truth that the famous writer and her husband were lovers.
In this version, the young Tom meets schoolteacher Marion (Emma Corrin) on Brighton Beach, and despite being told by a friend, “He likes loud, busty types” (which should have been a giveaway), they begin a polite courtship. Tom wants to improve himself, so he asks Marion to recommend some art books, something probably only ever done on an early date by someone in a movie.
Marion takes him to the Brighton Museum, where aesthete Patrick opens their eyes to the stormy romance of a Turner painting. Soon, the trio are inseparable, with Patrick appointing himself cultural guide and whisking them off to the opera to soak up some Verdi. Marion seems vaguely uncomfortable about effectively becoming the tagalong in these outings, but she’s too polite and English to say anything.
Despite zero evidence of passion between them, though not for lack of trying on Marion’s part, Tom asks her to marry him. But meanwhile he’s begun posing for Patrick’s sketches, preferably in uniform. A glass of scotch leads to a tentative caress, and pretty soon, the two men are hooking up whenever they can, though not without the occasional stab of shame and self-disgust from Tom. He’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” as an elementary needle drop tells us. Another helpfully says, “Memories Are Made of This.”
Nyswaner contextualizes the period — a decade prior to the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in England — with a back-alley liaison behind an underground gay club, sparking panic when cops arrive to break it up. And Patrick reveals that his partner of five years was beaten to death by thugs. But if there’s any conflict for Tom in being a law enforcement officer whose colleagues pat themselves on the back whenever they nab another “sexual pervert,” Styles lacks the technique as an actor to convey it.
Corrin is better, subtly revealing Marion’s unease when Patrick rolls up unannounced to cook them dinner on Day 1 of their honeymoon at an isolated cottage. She’s even more ruffled when she spies them embracing in the greenhouse, and later when Patrick contrives to take Tom as his “assistant” on that museum business trip to Venice. “It’s unnatural,” Marion spits out to a school colleague (Maddie Rice), who promptly reveals that she’s a lesbian and predicts that Tom won’t change.
From the start, the film jumps back and forth, without much elegance, between the 1950s heyday of this awkward triangle and their difficult reunion 40 years later. The chief redeeming factor here is the always wonderful Gina McKee as the older Marion, her natural warmth and calm, grounded qualities allowing for greater personal insights into the character.
At first, Marion seems like a candidate for sainthood when she moves Patrick (Rupert Everett) — physically diminished after a stroke and other brutalities of life — into the couple’s home in Peacehaven, not far from Brighton, and takes charge of his care. She does this against the wishes of Tom (Linus Roache), who has lost the sparkle in his eye from those younger years. He takes endless walks with their dog along the seaside clifftops and refuses even to step into the room of the enfeebled guest.
The sketchy details of the intervening years, the dramatic events that busted up the three friends and the motivation for Marion’s selfless act of atonement are revealed — as these things invariably are in this kind of genteel soap — through the convenient discovery of a stack of diaries. McKee’s Marion tries not to read them at first, but we know that won’t last.
The script’s depiction of the differences between a time of anti-gay persecution and one of increased visibility and acceptance are more earnest than affecting. That’s because Grandage — not displaying much more flair than he did in his dull first feature, Genius — gives the material so little edge. And Nyswaner’s script never digs deep into his characters’ psychology.
Right down to the melancholy melodies of Steven Price’s score, the languid pacing and the pretty but bland views of the Sussex coast, it’s a respectful drama, watchable enough but unable to build much emotional charge around its exploration of the mysterious lines of love and friendship.
Aside from McKee, the same goes for the performances. Everett does his practiced balancing act of imperiousness and battered dignity with reasonable aplomb, but Roache is barely there until a rushed final scene whose big surge of feeling is as fatally restrained as everything else.
Corrin is fine, though doesn’t come close to capturing the inner turmoil that made their breakout work as Diana on The Crown so riveting. Dawson plays the breezy sophisticate more convincingly than the lovelorn man inside. And as for Styles, he’s not terrible, but he leaves a hole in the movie where a more multidimensional character with an inner life is needed most. Between this and Don’t Worry Darling, he’s yet to prove himself a real actor.