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‘My Policeman’ Review: Harry Styles’ LGBTQ Love-Triangle Tale Can’t Balance Time Periods

The film jumps back and forth between the 1950s and 1990s, but the two versions of the three characters never cohere

This review originally ran on September 11, 2022, for the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

A love triangle plays out over decades in Michael Grandage’s “My Policeman,” based on the 2012 novel by Bethan Roberts, who was inspired by the 40-year relationship between English novelist E.M. Forster and policeman Bob Buckingham, as well Buckingham’s wife, May, who also became close with Forster. As described by Roberts in a 2012 essay in The Guardian, this quiet, proto-polyamorous situation was “a wonderful muddle,” which seemingly worked for all three participants in their own way. 

The relationship at the center of “My Policeman,” isn’t so much wonderful as it is tragic. Instead of finding a happily unconventional comfort as Forster and the Buckinghams may have, the three individuals in “My Policeman” end up jealous, unsatisfied and oppressed, and the film explores the ways in which one might attempt to right decades of wrongs. 

The film alternates between the inception of the relationship between Tom Burgess (Harry Styles), Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin) and Patrick Hazelwood (David Dawson) in 1950s Brighton, England, and the late 1990s, when Marion (Gina McKee) has invited the ailing Patrick (Rupert Everett), who is recovering from a stroke, to stay in the home she shares with her husband Tom (Linus Roache) in an English seaside village. It’s been many years since the trio were together, and tensions are high. 

The novel is made up of Patrick’s diary (detailing his affair with Tom) and a confessional letter written by Marion decades later. In Natasha Tripney’s review of the book in The Guardian, she describes the Marion and Patrick points of view, saying that the “possessive note is the key to their tragedy and it’s telling that the man so desired by them both remains voiceless, distant.” That is not the case in Grandage’s film, adapted for the screen by Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”), in which Tom is very much a real person but still feels “voiceless, distant,” a slippery, elusive character. 

There is a gulf between the older Tom and the younger Tom in “My Policeman,” in both writing and performance, as there is with all of the younger and older characters in the film. Older Tom is bitter and taciturn, avoiding his wife by taking long walks on the sea wall with his dog. Roache’s Tom is a far cry from the soft, open youth played with a sense of innocence and naïveté by Styles, a beautiful, unknowable cipher unable to be possessed by either Marion or Patrick.

The marked difference between the two men over the course of 40 years signifies the ways in which the decades of enduring brutal homophobia have hardened Tom into someone brittle and abrasive, but there’s no connective tissue, performance-wise, between Styles and Roache. The rift feels so vast that at times it’s even hard to square that they are playing the same character.

The same goes for Patrick: Dawson’s Patrick is sleek and erudite, though caring, and in his later years, Everett’s version has evaporated any sense of politesse, even accounting for the fact that he is recovering from a stroke. Time and trauma have not been good to these men, but the writing doesn’t offer any solid characterization or sparks of recognition. There are no threads between the young men of this story and the older for the audience to grasp onto.

McKee and Corrin are the most alike in their portrayal of Marion, but she is also a troubling character who eludes our sympathy. As a young schoolteacher, she’s taken in by the beauty and charm of Tom, a friend of a friend. They begin a friendship, and he introduces her to a gallerist, Patrick, he met during a routine crime report. Marion is swept off her feet by Patrick’s knowledge, sophistication, tickets to recitals and nice dinners, and the trio form a fast friendship. When she spies a sketch of Tom in Patrick’s apartment, it’s a clue as to the true nature of their relationship, the details of which the older Marion discovers while reading Patrick’s diary.  

Tom and Patrick are in love, conducting a secret, torrid affair, with Marion serving as Tom’s beard. The love scenes between the men are intense and passionate, a stark contrast to the pallid thrusting of Tom and Marion after they dutifully marry, because bachelors don’t get very far in the police department. Marion, who has thus far been happy to pal around with Patrick, becomes suspicious when he crashes their honeymoon, and it escalates when Patrick invites Tom to Venice to “assist” with bringing some art back to the gallery. 

Though it’s Tom’s dishonesty that lights the match, Marion’s jealousy becomes the blaze that burns the whole thing down. Her efforts to repair things, forcing Tom and Patrick together at the end of their lives, seems too little too late, and as we switch back and forth between her youthful fear and misapprehension, and her later attempts at grace and reconciliation, it’s a challenge to understand her despite McKee’s wonderful performance.

Marion’s actions go beyond mere jealousy, resulting in incredible trauma. We are most consistently aligned with her point of view, even as we watch her essentially become a villain before our eyes. Yes, people change, but the narrative whipsawing between the mistakes made then and the attempts to fix it later doesn’t allow us to connect with either story. The 1990s framing device keeps pulling us out of the 1950s love story, sapping its power.

All six actors give singular performances (perhaps to the detriment of character consistency), but “My Policeman” is finely made, craft-wise. The 1950s setting is warmly detailed in the costumes and production design, the chill of their home years later expressing the pallor that’s fallen over the relationship. For relative acting newcomer Styles, the guileless and appealing young Tom is an ideal role, his sweet and vacant beauty offering a blank slate onto which Marion and Patrick can project whatever they want. 

It’s just the troubling muddle of the script and direction that leaves one wanting much, much more from “My Policeman.”

“My Policeman” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 21 and launches globally on Prime Video Nov. 4.