There’s a stately, old-fashioned gentility to “My Policeman,” a period piece romance from the days when homosexuality was “The love that dare not speak its name” in the United Kingdom.
It’s the sort of tragic gay melodrama that stood out in many a fall film festival in Toronto and New York, not quite Douglas Sirk era guarded and 1950s oblique, but something that would have been considered sexually “daring” as recently as Todd Haynes’ homage to Sirk, 2002’s “Far from Heaven.”
As dated as it is, I expected the source novel to be antiquated, and not a relatively recent publication. The story arc has a familiarity and the tropes trotted out are tried and true. Seeing Linus Roache as a sexually-conflicted retiree here reminds us he first gained notice playing a tormented and closeted “Priest” back in 1994, and the presence of Rupert Everett pays tribute to his role in making gay characters mainstream, and the career price he paid for being out and the leading man roles he probably lost, handsome as he was in his youth.
All of which is a way of saying that this overfamiliar and somewhat predictable tale from the 1950s (and today) has value. At a time when gay rights are under renewed assault at home and abroad, it’s worth remembering “the bad old days” and the rippling pain of relationships that could never be, and the hurtful, stifling influence of “the norm.”
A very old man (Everett) is delivered, by wheelchair, to a home by the sea in Brighton. A retired school teacher (Gina McKee) is taking him in, and gets cursory instructions on how to handle him. “No cigarettes,” no matter how much he badgers you, for starters.
Is this some program in which the public is paid to take in the elderly and infirm? Are they related? No to both.
The fact that her retired husband Tom (Roache) has turned to long dog walks along the sea-lashed breakwater rather than meet this failing old man speaks volumes. They have history — all of them.
In flashbacks, we meet Marion (Emma Corrin) just as she’s finishing school and about to start teaching, and Tom (Harry Styles) as he’s just finished his military service and started police work. They meet through a friend of hers, and she is quite taken.
Tom is kind, considerate and curious, a “copper” who would love book recommendations from Marion. But just as they’re starting to become a couple, he introduces her to a museum curator (David Dawson) who’d love to give them a private tour.
Tom met him at work, and the cultured, worldly Patrick becomes a third in their couple — inviting them to recitals, proffering tickets to the opera, leading them in restaurant sing-alongs. He’s the life of the party, a tour guide to life on a higher place. He’s also a third wheel. Her friends think the educated Patrick might be smitten with Marian. She’s sure Tom’s the one for her.
As Patrick is setting off the viewers’ gaydar, the question the picture asks becomes “How did Marian find out, and when?”
“My Policeman” backtracks to Tom and Patrick’s meeting, which is a cliche. And it fills us in on clues Marion is given and misses or grasps, colleagues she confides in, as this “third wheel” enlivens their cultural and social lives, but who invites himself for a visit at the country cottage where Tom and Marion honeymoon.
As I type that, I am wondering anew what publisher took on a typescript that is this far from the social/sexual cutting edge — in 2012. Perhaps there is subtext that the film adaptation lacks. Then again, Bethan Roberts went on to write an Elvis novel (“Graceland”). So maybe not.
Director Michael Grandage did the nicely-realized publishing period piece “Genius,” in which Colin Firth played the Golden Age literary editor Maxwell Perkins, who made Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Hemingway legends. “My Policeman” shares that film’s attention to character and setting, and its quiet tone, with flashes of melodrama and splashes of not-quite-explicit sex.
The cast is also quite good. I wasn’t wholly on board the Harry Styles as cinema star bandwagon with “Don’t Worry, Darling.” In this period piece, he leans into his still boyish looks (grease on the celebrated forelock) and plays up the character’s lack of sophistication but desire to acquire it. He works in the part.
Corrin, who played Princess Dianna on “The Crown,” strips away a half century of sexual sophistication playing a wife of the one of the last “the last to know” generations.
Dawson, who was the skinny, over-matched and yet cunning King Alfred in TV’s “The Last Kingdom,” has an Alan Cumming vibe about him — “dashing,” worldly, sophisticated and not boorish about it.
There are but glimpses of the closeted gay life of the era — the furtive back-alley assignations that begin in the one gay bar in town, brutal police abuse.
The film’s core is the war of wills that emerges, competing agendas, everybody selfishly wanting what’s best for themselves. Marion and Patrick are destined to be hurt. But what about Tom? Who gets to be selfish, who faces consequences?
As familiar as much of this can seem, the players draw us in and make us invest in it. Even if the resolution is entirely too pat and emotionally lacking, the mere casting of the legendary Everett, the quintessential “Gay Best Friend” in “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” McKee (“Notting Hill”) and Roache, most recently a regular on TV’s “Vikings” and “Homeland,” gives the present day scenes the weight they need to work, even if that part of the story is given short shrift.
They ensure that whatever its shortcomings, “My Policeman” is never less than watchable, a frustrating romance from an era when same sex love affairs were, by law, bound to frustrate, curse and wound the lovers. Remembering that simple fact, and that this wasn’t that long ago, has value far beyond what might be just another gay romance with “tragic” undertones.
Rating: R, for sexual content (nudity)
Cast: Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, Gina McKee, David Dawson, Rupert Everett and Linus Roache
Credits: Directed by Michael Grandage, scripted by Ron Nyswaner, based on a novel by Bethan Roberts. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:53