The new film MY POLICEMAN is the kind of movie they used to call a “three-hankie” weeper. It’s an occasionally moving story about a love triangle between three people in 1950s Britain and it’s getting a lot of buzz because it stars Harry Styles as the title character. The film’s problems are many, including Styles’ inability to cut a three-dimensional figure on the screen. He, and the film at almost every level, fails to dig deeper into the emotions at hand. Thus, we’re left with a noble effort, albeit one that isn’t nearly as candid, profound, or revelatory as it thinks it is. It’s a one-hankie weeper at best.
The story concerns Tom Burgess (Styles) a handsome and earnest cop working in East Sussex off the Brighton coast where he’s courting the local schoolteacher Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin). They make for a couple as cute as the proverbial bug’s ear, but Tom is also attracted to their mutual friend Patrick Hazelwood (a droll David Dawson), the town’s museum curator. Tom and Patrick start a clandestine relationship that parallels the public one Tom has with Marion. Most of the drama concerns not if the men will be found out, but when and by whom. Back then homosexuality was deemed a perversion against the laws of nature and such practices were outlawed throughout the UK and Europe.
Unfortunately, much of the potential tension in how long can Tom and Patrick keep their affair a secret is seriously diminished by the fact that the B story here shows all three surviving and still involved with each some 30 years later. The older versions of Tom, Marion, and Patrick are played by the esteemed British character actors Linus Roache, Gina McKee, and Rupert Everett. Perhaps if the film had saved the older versions of the characters for the final act the drama would have worked better, but as it is now, the stakes don’t seem nearly as high as they should.
The film could’ve at least filled in the gap between the decades to add more depth to their stories. And even though the older actors are given substantial screen time, the three don’t interact together much. McKee shines brightest amongst the cast, while the rest struggle to make the most of their underwritten parts. Styles may look every inch the movie star but he barely passes as an actor. All of his choices are on the surface, with shockingly little depth in his voice, eyes, or movements. Sadly, Styles is two-for-two this season, failing to impress in his other starring role in DON’T WORRY DARLING. (All Styles, no substance?)
Based upon Bethan Roberts’ 2012 book of the same name, Ron Nyswaner’s script pulls punches left and right. We don’t get enough sense of the men’s passion, there’s precious little dialogue that crackles, and important scenes are left out of the story entirely. (The character of Tom gets short shrift in both his past and present.) Director Michael Grandage shoots everything so discreetly, it’s like he was aiming for it all to play like a quaint British drama from the 1950s. That may have worked sixty years ago, but with utterly forthright LGBTQ stories being told left and right today, his approach makes this film feel dated, even edging toward obsolescence.
Granted, the finale does have some teary moments, but the big “A-ha!” rug pull at the end is hardly the surprise the filmmakers think it is. But none of what’s gone on for the run of this film is nearly as impactful as it should be. It’s not daring enough, not sexy enough, not stirring enough. MY POLICEMAN plays everything far too safely and squanders its opportunity to truly be profound or moving.
MY POLICEMAN is one of the movies in the audience competition at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. It’s where I saw it and was delighted that the CIFF made it available to see early, before its release this weekend.