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My Policeman review (TIFF): Harry Styles impresses in period drama

Harry Styles holds his own amongst his more experienced co-stars in ensemble drama movie My Policeman, which tells love story across two time periods

My Policeman

Our Verdict

An interesting period drama, with strong casting across the board, and the costume and production design are major strengths. Both Gina McKee and Emma Corrin are stand outs, in creating the complicated character of Marion across two time periods.

After dipping a trepidatious toe in the choppy waters of acting in Christopher Nolan’s war movie Dunkirk (2017) and a cameo in Marvel’s Eternals, one of the most famous people on the planet – pop star Harry Styles – has made his serious film actor debut this year – with two almost simultaneous film festival premieres. First, there was Don’t Worry Darling at Venice, and now we have drama movie My Policeman in Toronto. Styles has some serious screen-time in both, making this the first instance of his acting skills coming under any real scrutiny.

Acclaimed theatre director Michael Grandage adapts the 2012 novel My Policeman which focuses on three characters in two time periods – the late 1950s and forty years later in the late 1990s. Marion (Emma Corrin) meets Tom (Harry Styles), who introduces her to his friend Patrick (David Dawson). They become something of a trio, and teacher Marion and museum curator Patrick endeavour to expand the horizons of the parochial bobby Tom by introducing him to art, literature, classical music and opera. Despite them barely having shared a kiss, Tom proposes to Marion and they marry.

In the 1990s, Marion (Gina McKee) and Tom (Linus Roache) take the ailing Patrick (Rupert Everett) into their seaside home. Marion has agreed to become Patrick’s carer in her retirement, and Tom clearly isn’t happy about it. Marion discovers Patrick’s 1950s diaries, which is how the real story of what was going on between the three of them unfolds in flashbacks.

It turns out that it is actually Tom and Patrick who are the ones who were really the lovers at the centre of this romance movie. Patrick offers to draw Tom’s portrait in his policeman’s uniform, as he’s trying to capture the ordinary folk of Brighton. They begin a passionate affair, which is obviously complicated by the fact that it’s Tom’s literal job to apprehend any men caught in the very act that they are enthusiastically partaking in.

My Policeman

Emma Corrin, whose career is also rapidly taking off since they made a big impression playing Princess Diana in The Crown, once again delivers a restrained performance with a lot going on beneath the surface. One of the highlights is the stupendously awkward honeymoon that Tom and Marion have in a country cottage, which Patrick turns up to. The storyline does not evolve predictably, and all of the characters are flawed. This is no clear-cut case of some of them being in the right or wrong, all three are victims of circumstance and clearly a product of the societal constraints they are living under.

The production design (by Maria Djurkovic) – particularly of Patrick’s flat, which is his haven to be with Tom – is detailed and revealing. Comparing Patrick’s bohemian, arty space in rich blues to the beige and bland home that the 1990s Marion and Tom occupy reveals that the colour and vitality has drained from Tom’s life.

Annie Symons’ precise costume design is equally impressive. It’s clear why Tom’s 50s bobby’s uniform inspires the possessive My Policeman in Patrick’s diaries and there’s one point where he heroically emerges from a police box like Doctor Who himself. When 90s Marion finally dons a colourful and co-ordinated outfit at a decisive moment, it is clear that she has drive and purpose for the first time in probably decades. Patrick takes Tom on a brief excursion to Venice as his ‘assistant,’ which must have eaten up a lot of the budget, but only really serves as the final stab in Marion’s back.

Gina McKee has long been a force in British film and TV in the likes of Our Friends in the North (1996), Wonderland (1999), and more recently in TV series Bodyguard. Linus Roache had breakthrough roles in Antonia Bird’s Priest (1994) and Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove (1997), and more recently appeared in TV series Homeland. They are both heartbreaking as the older Tom and Marion, who can barely articulate their feelings or express the weight of the decades of unexpressed thoughts that they’ve been enduring. As Patrick has suffered a stroke which affects both his speech and movement, Rupert Everett’s performance is constrained, but he is impressive at conveying a well of emotion through his eyes.

The film is an imperfect look at the way homosexuality was targeted as a criminal offence, which increased during the 1950s, including some high-profile cases. It wasn’t decriminalised until 1967, but this of course didn’t mean that it was suddenly or magically widely accepted. My Policeman does draw a few somewhat clumsy parallels to the way gay people were better able to be out in the 1990s. But it works better as an examination of these three specific people, rather than trying to make broader points about the history of gay rights in the UK.

My Policeman

While Styles is going to come under intense scrutiny due to who he is, and people will judge his movie star credentials, this is not a starring role – he is part of an ensemble. While his acting is not yet at the same level as his fellow cast-members, he comes across as naive and inexperienced, which works well for the role of Tom. Tom is a fish-out-of-water in both Patrick and Marion’s world, so it makes sense that he is out-of-step with them.

My Policeman is an interesting drama that makes good use of its two time periods. The casting is strong across the board, and the costume and production design are major strengths. Both Gina McKee and Emma Corrin stand out in creating the complicated character of Marion across the decades. A solid, but flawed period drama.