This is apparently when I catch up with some historical romances put out by streaming services last year that just flew under the radar. My Policeman (2022) got a tiny bit of buzz because pop singer Harry Styles plays one of the gay protagonists, but the flick was barely promoted and reviews were mixed.
The movie doesn’t break new ground, but I found it poignantly relevant in reminding folks how repressed and dangerous queer love was in the recent past — and how that continues to harm people every day. The story opens in the 1990s-ish and flashes back to 1957, when a new teacher, Marion (Emma Corrin), meets a young policeman, Tom (Harry Styles). They begin a tentative romance, into which steps a museum curator Patrick (David Dawson). Soon enough, Tom asks Marion to marry him, but what she doesn’t know, and won’t know until many years later, is that Tom and Patrick had already been carrying on a romantic and sexual relationship. The two men continue this despite Tom’s marriage, and, of course, things go badly.
Some reviewers have criticized Harry Styles’ acting as remote and stilted, I think that works in favor of showing how deeply in the closet his character is. He only really lets go in the sex scenes with Patrick (which are gorgeous), and everywhere else he’s entirely buttoned-up, closed off. This pairs well with the older version of Tom, played by Linus Roache, who is cold and avoidant but also breaks down secretly when he sees a young gay male couple freely, happily holding hands on the street. That’s perhaps the most pointed scene in the whole film, saying “look at what we couldn’t have back then.”
And the thing is, we can’t all have that right now. As of 2021, homosexuality is still a crime in at least 67 countries, including a death penalty in six. I vividly remember when Lawrence v. Texas finally ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional in the United States in 2003. However, sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is not universally prohibited in employment, housing, and public accommodations across the U.S. Over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills are winding their way through the legislatures of various U.S. states to restrict everything from drag shows to books about queer topics from school libraries to healthcare for transgender kids. So while it’s great when we do see LGBTQ movies and TV shows where people live happily ever after, I don’t mind a thoughtfully told story of the unhappier history of queer romances because we’re not very far from those days, unfortunately.
As someone who understands that relevance personally, David Dawson told Vogue about the research he did to prepare for his role:
“I watched a beautiful docudrama the BBC made called Against the Law, with a lot of gay men who had lived during that time. It was incredibly moving and eye-opening in terms of what people had to go through. But what I equally found inspiring was the determination and strength to continue to find joy. I really searched into: What is a safe space for somebody who has no affirmation in their life that to be themselves is good and right? I looked into the history of gay bars as safe spaces because Patrick frequents one in Brighton. That feeling, to walk into this secret space and find people who are just as intelligent and bright and ambitious and passionate as you, how would that have felt? I certainly came away from this film, as a gay man myself, with a greater feeling of acknowledging the privilege that I have, the freedoms and rights that I have. I’m getting married next year…”
Being a mid-century drama, the costumes aren’t flashy, but they are perfectly appropriate. Costume designer Annie Symons (The Terror, The Crimson Petal and the White) talked about creating a sense of the post-WWII British world with the wardrobe in a GoldDerby video:
“I wanted to reflect a sort of innocent joy, I suppose, in the colors, but also remind the audience — which is what you do with costume: you signify things about character and period — that we’re really still in a different period.”
Each character had their own look with Patrick and Marion getting more style since he’s a little bit of a dandy gentleman, while she’s the only female character. But Tom’s clothing is repressed, just like he is. Symons said:
“For Tom’s character — I think he was very limited in the choices he was able to make. He was constrained by the times he lived in, fighting his desire, his nature … it was quite important to signal that he wasn’t able to make choices. So, all his civilian clothes are as uniform as his police uniform in a sense — that sort of simple navy blue, navy blue/white, same cut.”
That uniform is perhaps not perfectly historically accurate, as 1950s policemen might not have worn belted coats, but the designer consulted with experts and had her reasons for the belt:
“The jury is actually out on that because I’ve found evidence to support the fact that some policemen, somewhere, would have worn a belt at that point. Ultimately, I [made] the decision not to put [Styles] in the rather trunk-like unbelted version because I wanted to accentuate his physique … The belt just gave him a waist, basically, rather than no waist at all.”
While she used a military-grade used wool twill for the uniform, Symons chose a slightly brighter blue, as she told Variety:
“The original uniforms were almost black. It didn’t work on screen. I felt it would be better if they were bluer. It gave Harry an aura that made him seem more attractive and youthful and less authoritarian. When you have a young, handsome actor like Harry, you work with that. You don’t run away from it.”
The outfits in the start of the flashback scenes reflect the Brighton beach setting. In the GoldDerby video, Symons talked about Marion’s blouse and skirt, saying:
“She was young, and a lot of her colors are very watery and liquid. I sort of picked up on the environment, and I wanted her to be sympathetic to that environment. The yellows are very pale yellow — the sunshine in England is very thin, it’s not California sun, so the yellow is softer, paler. And the stripes, basically that looks like a deck chair at the beach.”
Then there’s Venice, which having recently watched Brideshead Revisited (1981), felt like a plotline and visual callback. Symons said of Tom and Patrick’s costumes in the GoldDerby video:
“When we see them together in Venice, they are free. They’re allowed to be the people they want to be. I wanted to show them in a more physically liberated way. You see more skin, you see a lightened up, slightly more fashionable version of themselves.”
Have you seen My Policeman on Amazon Prime Video?