Decorous and idealized, My Policeman updates the kinetic love triangle of François Truffaut’s Jules & Jim in a style more befitting the old Masterpiece Theatre. While the situation it depicts is precipitous, it’s a film that only suggests cliffs and edges, approaching them only to turn tail. As an LGBTQ film angling for a mainstream audience, it’s far too polite to be bold, yet it’s desperate to move us. And with excellent actors tasked with that primary objective, it ultimately succeeds — in spite of its insipid overreaching.
At the forefront of the film’s deft casting is Harry Styles as Tom Burgess, the British policeman of the title. He patrols the sun-dappled streets of Brighton in the 1950s, which, in terms of crime, may as well be Mayberry. One day at the beach, he meets Marion (Emma Corrin), a cultured schoolteacher who cannot swim. He teaches her the freestyle stroke; she introduces him to art. They begin to see each other regularly, even if, for the more eager Marion, this bashful bobby seems curiously averse to taking their relationship to the next level.
Eventually they wind up at a museum, where curator Patrick Hazlewood (David Dawson) leads the couple on a tour through the Old Masters. But for Tom and Patrick, this is no incidental encounter; as flashbacks reveal, they’ve known each intimately. They met on the street, with Patrick, an amateur artist more accepting of his sexuality, inviting the policeman to pose for a portrait in his romantic walkup, believing that “ordinary people have the best faces.”
This irony, in describing one of pop music’s most magnetic entertainers, as “ordinary,” is at the heart of Styles’ subversive casting. “I’ve never been asked to model before,” the sheepish policeman replies, as spoken by the first man to ever appear solo on the cover of Vogue — in a frilly dress, no less. Director Michael Grandage dexterously plays against the actor/singer’s sexy insouciance, presenting a Harry Styles who is innocent, naïve and unsullied by life. I’ve yet to see Styles in his other major role this year, Don’t Worry Darling, but his work here is a small revelation. From his look and demeanor to the well of angst gradually burbling below the surface, he channels James Dean as potently as any contemporary actor.
But if Tom is a secret rebel, his cause is love. With homosexuality illegal in the United Kingdom until 1967, each of Tom and Patrick’s rendezvous is loaded with risk. There’s also the matter of Marion, who at first enjoys their status as a throuple: The two guys in her life, the complicated and sophisticated Patrick and the simple and masculine Tom, seem to form two halves of the perfect man — a platonic honeymoon that, by the time Marion’s suspicions come to a head, proves all too brief.
Adapted by Ron Nyswaner from a 2012 romance novel by Bethan Roberts, My Policeman will appeal to a sizable swath of the adult moviegoing public, because it’s handsomely shot, studiously performed, and has all the right things to say about the torment of the closet, the illogic of bigotry, and the inhumanity of a period in our history that’s shamefully recent.
But adventurous filmmaking this is not. In his sophomore feature, Grandage, best known as a theater director, takes a gloves-off approach, favoring hollow elegance over raw experience. Tom and Patrick’s first time in the bedroom is among the more un-erotic sex scenes in recent memory. Unwilling to present it directly, Grandage cuts between disconnected segments of writhing flesh and voyeuristic, furtive glances at their congress through a mirror, serving only to reinforce the characters’ actions as something unseemly or verboten. It should be a moment of animal ecstasy; instead, it’s merely “tasteful,” and thoroughly forgettable. God forbid the moment makes Mr. and Mrs. Middle America just a little bit uncomfortable.
The same sensibility justifies a later scene, when Patrick finds himself brutally beaten up for his sexuality. Instead of hearing the sounds that accompany such an assault, Grandage layers a lovely contrapuntal piano over the scene, lessening and prettifying its impact.
These are hard subjects, directed with a soft approach. Grandage and Nyswaner are also comfortable with lazy symbolism when it serves their purpose — like the image of Tom, his career ruined, burning his police uniform in a backyard fire in a moment of pique that nobody, including the actors in the scene, seems to believe.
All the while, my mind drifted to the intensity and audacity that directors better suited to queer material, like Stephen Frears or Jane Campion, would have filmed Roberts’ book. In the end, even Grandage got to me, despite the swelling strings tutoring me on exactly how I should feel. But I would have rather experienced one of their policemen.
MY POLICEMAN. Director: Michael Grandage; Cast: Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, Gina McKee, Linus Roache, David Dawson, Rupert Everett; Distributor: Amazon; Rated R; Opens: Now playing at most area theaters, Nov. 4 on Amazon Prime