My Policeman, now on Amazon Prime Video, is curiously enough the second Harry Styles film released this year, set in the Fifties, in which the plot involves him keeping a major secret from his wife. (The first is Don’t Worry Darling, in case you were wondering.) Styles is Brightonian cop Tom Burgess, who first strikes up a friendship with, then finds himself falling for museum curator Patrick Hazlewood (David Dawson). Painfully aware of the law’s stance on homosexuality even as he struggles to make sense of his own feelings — “What is happening to me?” he asks himself, distraught after their first romantic encounter — Tom marries teacher Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin) to keep up appearances. It’s a safe, comfortable marriage, even if defined by an awkward courtship and lacklustre sex that director Michael Grandage contrasts against the uninhibited passion Tom and Patrick demonstrate in private.
The film, based on Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel of the same name, cuts between the Fifties and the Nineties, tracing the repercussions of a single lie over time. Parts of My Policeman play out predictably, its inherent sadness and framing as a lament for lost time placing it squarely in the tradition of Tragic Gay films, in which queer people’s stories are tied to their trauma. Yet there’s a yearning and sensuality to the film that render it so magnetic.
Grandage has worked as theatre director since 1996. My Policeman is his second feature film after Genius (2016), a biopic of American editor Max Perkins that starred Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. He spoke about drawing inspiration from Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), deciding how explicit he wanted the sex scenes to be and casting Styles.
What I love about My Policeman is that it’s a story that's told through hands — hands clasped together reassuringly, the closeup of a wedding ring during a betrayal of marriage vows, hands intertwined in pleasure. What prompted you to tell this story through this recurring motif?
It was a very strong theme that I wanted to bring in. I think the film could almost be subtitled ‘Sensuality and Touch’, because touch is so important — whether it’s that very first touch of the neck that Tom gives Patrick or whether it is the ritualistic washing that the older Marion does for older Patrick, or the touch of marble that happens when they’re close to the monument, or even the touch of a hand on a cigarette, or certainly, as you say, the intimate touch of flesh. It’s about trying to express the emotional narrative of the film wherever possible, without necessarily having words all the time. You can quite often do it through visuals, that’s the beauty of doing anything that is dramatic. The hand was a very strong visual for me, and through it, I wanted to explore even tenseness or the tension that happens sometimes between Marion and Tom.
It helps you, frankly, not have to have scenes that have a lot of dialogue. That’s something that I was after right at the very beginning, and I suggested a few of my cinematic influences, films I love. There’s a beautiful Alain Resnais film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, where hands on flesh appear almost sculptural. When we were discussing the intimacy scenes, I asked them to take a look at that, simply because it was a good reference point. All of that was premeditated, rehearsed and an integral part of the film.
Since you mentioned the intimacy scenes — how did you decide how explicit you wanted them to be? By design, the heterosexual sex in this film is more conservative and more restrained, as opposed to say the gay sex scenes. How did you approach them?
That is exactly the story — Tom is far less free in his intimacy with Marion as he is with Patrick. We wanted the film to represent his emotional difficulty and then his emotional abandonment, and we wanted those two to contrast each other through the intimacy. The scenes were easy to rehearse because all the actors were open to the idea. Sometimes those scenes are difficult to watch and that was part of the screen-telling of the film, in order to make audiences understand that this character really wants to free themselves of the law because of the way it was in the 1950s, and yet, at the same time, he did also want the comfort and the friendship of his marriage with Marion. We were able to explore all of this through the intimate scenes, we rehearsed them and talked about many options and shot a fair bit of stuff. But what you saw in the film is the best representation of trying to tell the difficult story between Tom and Marion, and the story of abandonment between Tom and Patrick.
What was your first meeting with Harry Styles like? You’ve mentioned before that he came in and was asking why a certain scene worked one way and another scene worked a different way. I’m curious about these initial conversations and his way of approaching the script.
He just convinced me he was right for the part because he’d done so much research, he knew the script incredibly well and he knew the novel incredibly well before he’d even met me. I was just impressed that he was able to so easily articulate why he wanted to play Tom and why he thought this would be a very good next film for him. That first meeting was delightful. It was very amicable, open. What usually happens as a director is that you’re in a room with an actor, trying to convince him to be in a film. So it was very nice to be able to be in a room with an actor who was telling me why he wanted to be in this film. I was so delighted to be in that particular position, that there was never any question that he should not play the role. He was so well prepared.
There’s a point in the film at which a character says that all love stories are tragedies. In recent times, there’s been a fair bit of pushback against what people have called the tragic gay story, which is where queer people are either killed or brutalised or they don’t have a happy ending. There is a happy ending in My Policeman, but it does arrive after a fair bit of sadness. What did you want to convey through that?
I wanted to convey something about the sociopolitical time of another era because I think there is a possibility of returning to that moment. The world is at a very fragile place with gay politics generally. I have watched a fantastic advancement in England, since 1957, over my lifetime. We are now celebrating gay marriage. But I also think we’re in a very fragile period in America and in England, where people want to discuss once again whether gay marriage is a good idea.
Part of me wanted to tell a story that would reach a young demographic of people, which I hope this film will, with Emma Corrin and Harry Styles. And when it does, I want them to see that there was a time in our past that was incredibly negative for people who just wanted to be who they are. And if they see that, I hope they will not want to go back to that, that they will become ambassadors for why we need to keep moving forward. So it is difficult sometimes, yes, to see tragedy and to see any kind of negativity, but it’s also truthful. And I think the film needs to be truthful above all. These stories are important for people’s understanding about how to move forward. And like you said, it also has a hopeful ending.