It’s the 1950s in Brighton, England, and love is in the air. The moment schoolteacher Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin) lays her eyes on devastatingly handsome policeman Tom Burgess (Harry Styles), she becomes utterly besotted with him, and before the sweltering summer is over, the young romantics are deep in the throes of a passionate affair. But Marion isn’t the only one pining after Tom. The policeman has also been partaking in a forbidden relationship with sophisticated museum curator Patrick (David Dawson)—a liaison that not only jeopardizes Tom’s budding relationship with Marion, but also runs both men the risk of being arrested for homosexuality.
Adapted from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel of the same name, My Policeman tells two stories. The first takes place in the 1990s and sees an older, now married Marion (Gina McKee) and Tom (Linus Roache), take in Patrick (Rupert Everett) to care for him after a stroke. During this time, the three are unable to ignore the harrowing truths of their shared past. Their attempts to accept things lost play out in lengthy flashbacks that chronicle the tempestuous love triangle that took place 40 years prior.
Once its action sets into motion, the film becomes a lot of different things. It’s a period piece, a character study, a slow burn. But above all, My Policeman is an effective love story. Tom and Patrick’s secret love affair is drawn out thoughtfully by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who delicately imbues a majority of the characters’ dialogue with double meaning, walking the narrow tightrope of highlighting the secretive nature of an affair while (mostly) avoid the dreaded exposition traps. When the two discuss Tom’s police uniform, for example, they are able to have a conversation about hiding behind masks without overtly mentioning their forbidden sexualities. It helps, too, that director Michael Grandage doesn’t waste a single moment where the two share a frame. He compels the lovers to exchange a glance every time they are together, a subtle motif which teases the film’s romantic tension to its very limits.
Paired with My Policeman’s agile writing and affecting direction, the undeniable chemistry between Styles and Dawson feels like a shining cherry on top. There is a tangible, quiet longing between the actors, both of whom give achingly restrained performances, with Styles (in his first-ever starring role) playing Tom with a devastatingly repressed and muted aura, and Dawson stealing the show with unquestionable magnetism, wearing an array of conflicting emotions in his every expression.
To complicate matters, Tom and Marion’s relationship is equally compelling. Corrin plays the latter with a captivating blend of childlike wonder and serene old-fashionedness. Not only is she a fascinating wild card that threatens Tom and Patrick’s relationship, but Corrin and Styles’ chemistry is also undeniable. This only adds more heft to an already weighty love story.
The older versions of the three central characters are much more stifled and constrained, and as a result their stories are a little less engaging than their younger counterparts. But the two storylines are stitched together exquisitely by Nyswaner and editor Chris Dickens, who transform the film into not only a tempestuous love story, but a thoughtful meditation on memory. (Though they admittedly could have done without quite so many conspicuous fades from Old Tom to Young Tom.) Nyswaner doesn’t always strain to fill in the gaps, but frequently leaps the chasm between youth and age in a jarring manner that leaves questions painfully unanswered. In doing this, he basks in words left unsaid and fates left unknown, which is one of the most important elements of My Policeman’s dueling love stories.
This isn’t to say that Nyswaner always sticks the landing; there are moments where the dialogue borders on expositional. Characters nimbly tiptoe around the topic of homosexuality being illegal in Brighton, just for one to later come right out and say it, as if it wasn’t already heavily implied. But in My Policeman, the sum tends to be greater than its parts, and the crafting of the story and chemistry between the actors is much more memorable than a stiff piece of delivery here, or an on-the-nose line of dialogue there. And while My Policeman undoubtedly could have benefited from a number of people involved loosening up just a little, this doesn’t distract much from its undeniable, heartbreaking and scintillating ode to the waning art of forbidden romance.
Director: Michael Grandage
Writers: Ron Nyswaner
Stars: Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, Gina McKee, Linus Roache, David Dawson, Rupert Everett
Release Date: November 4, 2022 (Prime Video)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.