Like it or not, fall 2022 appears to be the season of Harry Styles. He’s been discussed ad infinitum in the most overexposed film in memory and also this one, “My Policeman,” helmed by English theater director Michael Grandage. On the press trail, Styles informed us that this film about the decades-spanning relationship between Tom, a closeted cop (Styles); art curator Patrick (David Dawson, a revelation, but more on that later); and Emma Corrin as Tom’s long-suffering wife Marion, is not “a gay story about these guys being gay.’ It’s about love and about wasted time to me.”
If you say so, but the way he seems to read his own movie suggests he didn’t understand the assignment. That’s reflected in a performance that registers as a blank beyond inscrutable gazes and sappy breakdowns. To play a repressed gay man involved in a steamy, behind-closed-doors affair requires levels of complexity and conveying inner turmoil that Styles can’t provide. There’s at least one good explanation for that, and all those who accuse the Brit pop star of queer-baiting know exactly what that is.
“My Policeman” is often very good, but the best scenes involve Dawson’s rapier-witted and dandyish Patrick or Corrin’s Marion, whom the actress makes more than a beard. She deeply loves Tom, and in his own way, she is loved by him in return. Together, they make up three points of a wobbly love triangle in which two of the actors run circles around the other.
In 1950s Brighton, England, Tom is a working-class police officer driven by conformity, doing everything that’s required of him by a traditional (read: hetero) world, and so when he meets sincere schoolteacher Marion on a glistening summer beach, he sees a chance to even further disappear into himself. The two share a genuine spark — one that never converts to heat. Frustrated over Tom’s seeming inability to consummate their affair, she asks, “Why can’t we be like a real couple?” (i.e., “Why can’t we fuck?”) That frustration eventually gives way to some tepid thrusting (“I’ll be better next time,” he says). Marion keeps her clothes on, and Tom’s mind is… elsewhere.
As we learn, he’s got Patrick on the brain. Patrick is an urbane sophisticate bursting with intellectual life, rather the opposite of Tom’s dolt (who admittedly isn’t much of a reader). He heads up the western classics department at the Brighton Art Gallery when not globetrotting, increasing his rare art collection, and indulging in life’s sensuous pleasures — up to and including more explicitly sensual ones at local gay speakeasy The Argyle, where he’s been known to pick up men but also where police are arresting and beating them because homosexual was then illegal.
Tom introduces Patrick to Marion as his “friend,” hoping they can share their love of great art (especially J.M.W. Turner, clearly an inspiration for cinematographer Ben Davis; the film is obsessed with cuts to waves breaking against rocks). This cements the three’s-company dynamic that dominates the story. The trio chows down on culture, from debates over “Anna Karenina” to violin recitals, with Tom staring on blankly.
Behind the scenes, passions are brewing. The movie steps back in time to show really just how Tom came to know Patrick: It’s because they’ve been having some pretty hot sex this whole time back at Patrick’s place, an emerald green-gilded pad lined with wall-to-wall art and rounded mirrors.
Styles recently said that the sex in “My Policeman” would show a more “tender” side to gay lovemaking because “so much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it.” I am here to tell you that the sex in “My Policeman” is rawer than Styles seems to think, from a close-up on Styles’ face, awash in ecstasy, while Patrick goes down on him for the first time, to an overhead shot of Patrick appearing to be topped by Tom, digging his hands into Patrick’s back. This is no Guadagnino-esque panning to a tree.
Later, Tom coughs up to Patrick that he’s planning to marry Marion because he wants kids. “You can afford to break the rules,” Tom says. “I can’t.” Patrick responds by pushing Tom against an embankment and jerking him off. “Can you share me?” Patrick asks, as if to say, “Can Marion do this?”
In flash-forwards to the 1990s spliced throughout the movie, we see Tom (Linus Roache) now in old age and still married to Marion (an excellent Gina McKee). They have taken in a very sick Patrick (Rupert Everett), who’s recently suffered a stroke and lost his ability to communicate. There’s a funereal “45 Years” vibe to these scenes, and you can almost smell the must of regret and chill in the air. This timeline further introduces an epistolary structure, unfolding via entries from Patrick’s diary that the elder Marion cracks open and reads into the night.
The diary’s lurid details include a sexy jaunt to Venice in the ’50s, where Patrick had serious art business but brought Tom along under the guise of his assistant. This sumptuous montage looks like a postcard, for all the better and the worse of what that entails. Later, an actual postcard serves to undo Tom and Patrick’s affair. How exactly it reaches that point is clunky and cliched, with a third-act “twist” that’s more of a foregone conclusion. (Ron Nyswaner’s script, working from the novel by Bethan Roberts, often caves to the demands of melodrama over character.)
The alternating double-timeline structure threatens to dilute the potency of those past-tense scenes. Grandage tends to shoot his movie like a play, unfolding the story via shot-reverse shot setups of people talking to each other, with little cinematic interest in the objects and minutiae that govern desire.
Styles’ interpretation of the material as a “universal” story that’s not just about “these guys being gay” aside, this is a very specifically gay story about very real gay pain. That also means, yes, “My Policeman” is another movie about gay suffering that features beatings, homophobia, repression, and brooding in the shadows. Perhaps it’s Styles’ lack of personal relationship to the material (Dawson is gay, and Corrin identifies as queer), but his performance feels only like half of one. Anyone can show twisting consternation or a pensive mood, but it’s another thing entirely to communicate the telepathy that hums between queer people (especially secret ones) and the inner whirling rage of desire left unrealized.
However. The movie is anchored, elevated, and very often knocked completely out of the park by Dawson, who is at turns sexy, mysterious, wise, naive, overflowingly open, vulnerable, and strong. It’s one of the best performances of the year, and one that deserves all exaltations in a movie that often lacks them. A late-breaking moment when Patrick’s museum colleague tells him, “There’s a policeman here to see you,” and Patrick lights up, only to realize that it isn’t that policeman here to see him, will break you.
Overall, “My Policeman” feels a little out of step with the times, with even a moment that feels like a literal callback to “Brokeback Mountain” — a glowering Marion accidentally catching Tom and Patrick in a moment of tenderness and then rushing back to the kitchen to collect herself. Do we really need another reminder that times were bad (and still are) for gay people, which of course means that love must suffer because of it? Still, “My Policeman” isn’t not arresting, and that’s thanks to the work of David Dawson and Emma Corrin, and not the film’s top biller, who was never the lead at all.
“My Policeman” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Amazon October 21 in theaters and streaming on Prime Video November 4.