Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina is referenced early on in My Policeman, setting the audience up for a grand and tragic love story. Eventually, we arrive at one in which both obsession and betrayal play equal parts. Yet the journey there is rather choppy, fragmented into two time frames that don’t always come together. The transitions are rather awkward; just as the viewer starts to get invested in one story, off we go to the other one.
Global pop star Harry Styles, in his second movie this fall after Don’t Worry Darling, is the eponymous lawman. His name’s Tom, but whose policeman is he anyway? In the 1950s he meets a teacher called Marion (Emma Corrin) and a museum curator, Patrick (David Dawson). He marries one and has a passionate affair with the other. Since it’s Britain in the 1950s where homosexuality is outlawed, it’s easy to guess who he has the affair with and who he’s legally bound to.
Forty years in the future, the lives of three are still entwined. Patrick (played by Rupert Everett in this section) is ill and mostly confined to bed. He comes to live with Tom (Linus Roache) and Marion (Gina McKee), who seem to be still married, though they hardly talk to each other. The story of how they met and became friends as young bright things gets intercut with the story of their hollow and defeated older selves. They almost have no connection with what they used to be. The film wants the audience to be mad at the law that prevented these promising young people from flourishing. Yet to do that, it has to be alive with character and story. Unfortunately, it never becomes anything more than a by-the-numbers retelling of a well-known novel.
Adapted by Ron Nyswaner from Bethan Roberts’ novel and directed by Michael Grandage, My Policeman sees both its writer and director playing in familiar grounds. As he has done in Philadelphia (1993) and Freeheld (2015), Nyswaner tells a story of queer people facing discrimination and adversity within their community. Freeheld even had a cop as the lead character, albeit an American in New Jersey played by Julianne Moore. Grandage, who’s primarily known for his stage work in the UK, mounts another handsome, stilted period piece cast with well-known faces like his previous film Genius (2016).
The film tries to conjure the 1950s with the costumes and production design. However, it ends up conjuring the stuffiness of the 1950s. Everything looks handsome, the sets, the clothes, and, of course, the three lead actors — but the story remains maudlin. The elements are big — life-changing passion, an illicit taboo affair, discriminatory laws — but the film remains small.
There are moments when these momentous emotions feel palpable, like when the three lead characters visit a museum and stand together in front of a painting by JMW Turner. Marion stands between the two men, yet all three merge into a ball of tension and desire. Something ignites and becomes palpable to the audience — for a bit, anyway. But that spark is soon deflated, and we are back to indifferently staged scenes and stale dialogue.
The main attraction here is, of course, superstar Styles, as the object of desire and the romantic lead. Nyswaner’s screenplay sets him up well with other characters talking about his “innocence” and “curiosity,” calling him “too handsome for a policeman.” Grandage’s camera tries to invoke sensuality by emphasizing the line of his shoulders by him, or a wisp of his hair falling over his eyes by him. For all that, though, he’s stiff and mannered when he should be fluid and engaging. As the marriage sours and he’s called upon to act opposite Corrin in heavy confrontations, he’s completely out of his depth di lei and unable to match her at all. Corrin skillfully shoulders the dramatic parts, becoming the most watchable actor in the film. Dawson — and particularly Everett — are called upon to play a particularly dour character, another forlorn homosexual. For a film that’s crying against injustice, it unfortunately trots out a 1950s cliche.
Completely unnecessary are the 1990s cutaways. That they are given so much screen time weakens the film even more, as nothing much happens. Marion smokes and looks concerned, Paul is bedridden and tries to steal a smoke, and Tom avoids both. McKee and Roache cannot convey a couple realistically. Perhaps because all they are called upon to do is glower at each other.
My Policeman’s ambitions are grand. Anna Karenina, really? None are realized, and instead of a classic tragic romance, it ends up being a turgid, airless concoction. Styles’ fans might find something to admire since they’ll get to gaze at their idol. But the rest of us should avoid looking.