Sometimes the people, not the press, get it right. I must confess disappointment at some of the off-the-mark critical dismissals for a picture I consider to be among the year’s most heartfelt—and if the audience at a screening I recently attended has anything to say about it they’d undoubtedly agree, given the pin drop quiet over the film’s 113 minutes followed by audible emotion upon the closing credits. While a handful of astute industry scribes have recognized the film’s noteworthiness, many others have leveled ill-judged criticisms from “melodramatic” (as if that’s a bad thing) to “gay memories filtered through ‘CIS’ woman’s perspective” to “too much of another time.” Huh? Come again?
That picture in question—and make no mistake, it’s a good one—is the handsome, sensitive My Policeman, charting an entanglement of young love and friendship between two men and a woman in England’s Brighton circa late 1950s, and the same people in the 1990s, whose adult lives have been influenced, in heartbreaking ways, by decisions made four decades earlier. It is an affecting, insightfully written and performed work with an ensemble of six actors so good that regardless of who is onscreen the film is consistently absorbing.
Written by Oscar winner Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) from the well-regarded novel by Bethan Roberts and directed by celebrated British theater director Michael Grandage, My Policeman is the sort of pedigreed picture that seduces with impeccable craft and period recreation in support of sincere feeling, perhaps unfashionable in our cynical, all-too-meta social era.
The picture opens in the late 1990s in a gray, seaside town, where into one waterfront home comes a recovering stroke patient, the aged Patrick (Rupert Everett, near-silent yet speaking volumes). Patrick’s recovery is to be tended to, we learn, by an old friend named Marion (Gina McKee, the radiant star of Michael Winterbottom’s 1999 Wonderland). The exact nature of the pair’s connection will only later become clear.
Marion is married to the distant Tom (Linus Roache), who makes his disapproval of Patrick’s presence known when he’s not wandering the seashore in solitude. Hidden away in the couple’s guest bedroom, cantankerous Patrick wants one thing (other than cigarettes), which is to speak with Tom, who refuses, despite his wife’s persistence.
What begins as a story about Marion’s challenge to keep Patrick comfortable quickly becomes a parallel tale built on a secret life of past recollections that emerge from Patrick’s long-held, dusted off journals. As Marion surreptitiously devours the vintage remembrances where she is but a supporting character in the mens’ love story, My Policeman traverses dual eras to construct its tale of three inextricably linked lovers caught up in passions, secret identities and betrayals. Later in life, they will carry the unreconciled spoils of their past.
That past, told in a rush of sexual confusion and liberation, begins when young Brighton cop Tom (pop star Harry Styles) forges a fortuitous connection with cultured museum curator Patrick (David Dawson). An instant attraction leads to a clandestine affair at a time when public homosexuality was outlawed as a “perversion” and penalized by police battery and imprisonment. Even a whispered suspicion could bring one up on indecency charges, guilty until proven innocent. For Tom, this means a dual life in and out of shadows, sidestepping a world of arrests, incarceration and ruin—all du jour in the name of love.
Tom knows the professional hurdles facing a single cop in getting promoted, so he takes up a duplicitous, near-platonic relationship with Marion (the very good Emma Corrin, The Crown). And despite attempts to resist his nature, he continues seeing Patrick in private, a union depicted as a behind-closed-doors passion that is sensual, affirming and sexually explosive. Styles, often regarded as gender-bending poseur in pop culture provocations, plunges into Tom’s nakedly vulnerable moments with abandon, leaving nothing coy on the table.
For much of the film’s first half, this trio of thick as thieves sophisticates paints the town (and often the countryside), taking in arts, music, dancing and flowing wine with a delightful camraderie. Eventually, Tom and Marion marry and Patrick gets sidelined (“You’ll have to share me,” Tom tells him). Yet the men continue at their own peril, gallivanting on a lovers’ trip to Venice, a bridge too far for Marion and a miscalculation that will bring one character’s surprising past and present motivations full circle.
As absorbing as My Policeman may be, it can sometimes feel a bit tactical in plotting and cutting; an additional fifteen pages of screenplay from Nyswaner might have afforded deeper, less situational insights and lifted the film to perfection. As it stands, we must often lean in and draw our own conclusions. For example, did tortured Tom ever articulate his true feelings for, and to, Patrick? At once juncture Tom is asked, “Do you love him?” To answer, we are left to our assumptions. While the pair have great sex and chemistry, they hardly have a moment to talk about anything other than their predicament. Likewise, across four decades of marriage there must have been some glue between Tom and Marion. Did they want children? How much did Marion know about her closeted husband? At what point did idealism give way to resignation?
Fortunately, the actors bridge such ellipses. McKee’s hushed, observant portrait of a woman quietly plagued by marital ennui and past regrets anchors the film’s framing device while the marvelous Dawson, all chivalrous, doomed devotion, is perhaps best in show. As his latter-day, ailing counterpart, Everett offers a mournful shadow of the former paramour defeated by prisons of love and his own body. Yet his heart still beats.
Watching this ensemble across eras one can’t help but fixate on Styles, recently dubbed “the most famous man in the world” and whose presence on film invites a “can he or can’t he act?” dimension to his every gesture. With more to do here than in the recent high-concept thriller Don’t Worry Darling and displaying both carnal adventurousness and a believable identity schism, Styles rises to meet his more experienced costars.
It is rather remarkable that we are now in an era where a global icon can “play gay” so explicitly with no fear of career repercussions when just a few short decades ago costar Everett effectively torpedoed his budding career as a leading man by coming out publicly and doing the same as Styles does here (ditto Brendan Fraser in the upcoming The Whale), playing gay in such pictures as Another Country, My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Next Best Thing, experiencing professional fallout in a less progressive, unforgiving industry and culture. Never mind his powerfully erotic turns in such heterosexual intrigues as Dance with a Stranger and The Comfort of Strangers.
But it may be Roache, who illuminated the tortured identity of a Roman Catholic priest on the down low in 1994’s Priest, who delivers the film’s emotional apex in a single, final gesture of simplicity that bridges time and heartache as to be wrenchingly transportive. It left me—and the audience—in tears.
In the film’s closing moments, Nyswaner’s dialogue as delivered by McKee and Roache has an impact and resonance that rings painfully authentic in both clarity and finality, suggesting that when life brings realizations one must act; there is no time to wait. Whatever one may think of My Policeman, such moments are among the best acted this year.
Well-appointed technical credits are period handsome yet understated, including the roiling seas and cliffside cinematography by Ben Davis (currently showing a similar affinity for the jagged shorelines of an Irish isle in The Banshees of Inisherin and a versatile veteran of both dramas and Marvel) and the subtly sentimental score by Steven Price, a background player for most of the picture which sneaks up on you in the touching final sequence.
Grandage’s perceptive film carries the weight of tragedy with a hint of catharsis. It’s rare to care about characters and their livelihoods to the extent that My Policeman engenders. It moves us, and that should not be discarded.
3 1/2 stars