Great performances elevate My Policeman, a wholly absorbing film about love, loss and prejudice, revolving around three people who unwittingly destroy one another.
Adapted into a film from Bethan Roberts’ 2011 novel, Michael Grandage‘s (Genius) My Policeman has begun its festival run, and its first reviews from TIFF and the Hamptons Film Festival have been tepid to say the least, with critics calling the movie “average” and “uninspired.” Having just seen this much-anticipated adaptation at the BFI London Film Festival, where it’s now having its European premiere, I am here to tell you not to listen to them: My Policeman is actually a great film.
Just like the novel, the book follows three people in two key moments in their lives: in the 1950s and in the 1990s. It’s the 1990s characters we meet first: retired teacher Marion (Gina McKee, of In The Loop) has just welcomed an old friend to stay at the house she shares with her husband Tom (Linus Roache, of Batman Begins) in Peacehaven. The friend in question is Patrick (Rupert Everett, of My Best Friend’s Wedding), who needs a lot of looking after, as he’s terminally ill and disabled, having just had a stroke. Even if Marion, Tom and Patrick were close in their youth, Tom isn’t happy to have his old friend around, so much so that he doesn’t even want to see him. We can tell a lot has happened during those forty years, and the film soon takes us back to the 1950s, when they were young, carefree, and full of hope.
And so, we find out how Tom (now played by Don’t Worry Darling‘s Harry Styles) and Marion (The Crown‘s Emma Corrin) first met, with the former, a policeman, teaching the girl how to swim, and the latter, a scholar, telling the boy about literature and art – something he knows nothing about. Soon, a romance is born, and Tom takes Marion to an exhibition, as a man who reported an accident to him days prior happened to be a museum curator, and invited them to go. The man, Patrick (David Dawson, of Peaky Blinders), gets along really well with Marion, with whom he connects on an intellectual level, and the three of them immediately become friends. Eventually, Marion and Tom get married, but there’s something going on with her husband that the girl can’t quite grasp, and we’re about to find out what it is.
Something that My Policeman handles just as well as the novel, if not even better, is the way this story’s many secrets are revealed not only to the characters, but also to the audience. The book is divided in sections, each narrated in first person by one of the characters, and the two main perspectives we get are those of 1990s Marion remembering her youth, and 1950s Patrick, through his journal entries. The movie initially mirrors this, as the first point of view we get is Marion’s, when she welcomes Patrick into her home. But when we move to the 1950s, even before Marion starts reading Patrick’s journals, forty years later, we are shown the exact same moments – Tom and Marion getting together and eventually meeting Patrick – first as they would look like to an external observer and then as they really took place. If in the novel we discover the truth at the same time as Marion does, since we’re reading Patrick’s novels with her, the film clues us in first, making for much more effective storytelling because it all happens in the moment, and isn’t filtered by the pages of a journal or Marion’s perspective.
And so, even before Marion discovers the whole truth about what happened in the 1950s, we are given a detailed look at the blossoming of another romance – that between Tom and Patrick – that puts the events we’ve seen before under a completely different light. We’re able to grasp the full picture before the protagonist does, but there are still more secrets left to discover – some still unbeknown to most of the characters – that will shed even more light onto what exactly happened in the past to break these three friends apart.
My Policeman is a compelling watch from start to finish, thanks to a combination of factors. Firstly, the film is incredibly well-written. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) takes the time to really introduce these characters to us, making us care about them from the very first moment we see them, and it’s truly a joy to watch them become friends, just as it’s heartbreaking to witness the change in the 90s. The curiosity to find out about their past is what holds our interest, but there’s also more than that: Marion, Patrick, and Tom are psychologically compelling characters, each of them a good, well-meaning person who happens to make choices that affect the others out of love, fear, or rage. We don’t blame them for their decisions, as they’re ultimately dictated by the times in which they lived, when the expectations placed on marriage were extremely high, and gay men were seen as “sexual deviants.” It’s a very complex relationship that we witness in both timelines, one marked by desire and discovery, the other by fear, regret, and irreparable damage, and both by socio-political rules and behaviours that make it impossible for us to approach our three characters with anything other than compassion.
As the three protagonist, all leads are excellent, making the younger and older version of each always believable and consistent. The standouts are undoubtedly Rupert Everett and Gina McKee as 1990s Patrick and Marion, and David Dawson as 1950s Patrick. All three give us performances that really affect us on an emotional level, in different ways. Rupert Everett breaks our hearts with mere glances and muttered words, embodying a man who has lived through so much, and whose body’s failure is a constant reminder of his inability to communicate with the only person who’d be able to give him what he has been longing for his entire life: acceptance and love. As younger Patrick, David Dawson completes that portrait by showing us the man he used to be, and still is, deep down. Dawson’s chemistry with both Styles and Corrin is exceptional, and 1990s Patrick comes across as a tormented old soul stuck in a younger body, who is capable of enjoying himself but also haunted by his past and future. Gina McKee excels at portraying a character who is both the same kind-hearted, generous young girl she used to be and a much more disillusioned woman looking not only for answers, but also for forgiveness.
Harry Styles and Emma Corrin are also great in My Policeman. Styles was the perfect choice for this role, and his acting skills have definitely improved since Don’t Worry Darling: young Tom wasn’t an easy character to play, and Styles manages to convey all the conflicting emotions of a confused young man who means no harm but just so happens to be stuck in the middle of two relationships, all while trying to figure out not only what his wants and desires are, but also if it’s ok to have them. Emma Corrin isn’t as present in the film as Dawson and Styles, but she still makes a mark as young Marion, conveying all the hopes of a girl in love and the unhappiness that comes when the illusions are shattered, to leave room for doubt, jealousy, and fear. Linus Roache doesn’t have many scenes in the film either, but he still conveys the same stiffness as his younger counterpart, showing us a man who stopped living the moment he stopped embracing his true self. As Marion’s colleague and friend, Maddie Rice (Fleabag) also shines, giving us a thoroughly unexpected, poignant scene that adds a lot of meaning to the film.
But My Policeman also contains a lot of lighthearted and even funny moments. The trio’s adventures in the 1950s are bound to bring a smile to your face, reminding you of your own youth and carelessness. Later in the movie, a few scenes are definitely going to make you laugh, such as Marion and Tom’s hilarious first night together as newlyweds.
When our trio first meets, Patrick tells Marion about “Anna Karenina,” describing Tolstoy’s novel as “literature’s most tragic love story, and also the most true, because all love stories are tragic.” My Policeman is both of these things, but it’s also a tale with no good or bad characters, where the real evil is societal constraints that don’t allow our protagonists to be free, filling them with guilt and regret and eventually making them cause each other’s undoing. But My Policeman is ultimately a story about forgiveness, where the journey is just as important as the resolution and no one is really to blame: in this “tragic love story,” there’s also room for hope.
My Policeman premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 15, 2022, and will be released in US theaters on October 21 and globally on Amazon Prime Video on November 4.
Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.