After the first intimate caress between Tom (Harry Styles) and Patrick (David Dawson) in Michael Grandage’s My Policeman, Tom stares at his hands and murmurs to himself, “What is happening to me?” It sounds as if he’s transforming into some sort of monstrosity, but instead Tom is just realizing that he has what will be deemed in this film as “homosexual tendencies.” Aside from these “tendencies”, Tom is intrinsically and powerfully part of upholding an oppressive system — he’s a police officer who believes that you have no need to fear the law if you “aren’t doing anything wrong,” he believes Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin), the woman he marries partially to cover his tracks, should leave her job to raise the children, he tries to make himself feel better about his sexuality by insisting he isn’t one of the more obvious gay men who wear rogue and women’s clothes. All of these failings are meant to melt away in how badly we feel for Tom and his bourgeois, artistic-type lover, Patrick, for having to love in secret at risk of immense punishment (of which, they inevitably receive — more so for Patrick, the more comfortable, more “stereotypical” gay man).
There’s a certain canon of gay film that My Policeman fits comfortably into — not so much made for queer people than for those who feel the only way to empathize with gay people is to cry about how terribly hard it is for them, about how there is no way that this could be a choice someone could make. When I watch this brand of gay film, along the lines of Call Me By Your Name, I get irritated with all the straight ladies who clutched at me and told me how I simply had to watch it, when all I end up seeing is some tragic gay story that isn’t all that interesting or fresh of a story minus the tragic gayness. This imagined mournful straight person, suddenly awoken to how godawful it must be to be gay, how they maybe should occasionally feel badly for our homophobic, transphobic culture, doesn’t just act as desired audience for this My Policeman, but exists within it — in the form of an older Marion reading Patrick’s old journals, realizing that her blatant and oppressive homophobia may have been part of the problem decades too late.
I suspected the film would have this sort of sterilized, tragic energy from even the press tours, where lead actor Harry Styles reassured us that this was a tender film about gay sex instead of what we’re all used to in gay film, which he claimed was usually “two guys going at it.” I don’t know what films he’s talking about, nor do I know what the problem with two guys going at it really is — my queerness includes all sexual expression, including celebrating some good old fashioned “going at it” if it’s what feels best and truest. The sex scenes in this film are “tender,” I suppose, but also pretty boring, pretty basically shot. They lack much sexiness or even interest.
My Policeman is more interested in the brutalization and hatred of gay people, the emphasis of how bad it used to be back then, but works to absolve those who partake in this cruelty (a suggestion that maybe you, too, can be forgiven for actively ruining gay people’s lives. I’m not sure, really, it never becomes clear). All of this isn’t even all that traumatic to me, though, because the film totally fails to tap into any sort of emotional resonance; partially due to strange character choices, partially due to two interweaving storylines that fail to weave together, and partially due to a particularly stilted performance from Styles (who just isn’t ready for leading man status yet).
At one point, Patrick is almost arrested for performing oral sex on another man in an alleyway. Before he drops to his knees, they place a newspaper below him. Neat, tidy, pristine, bland. The moment encapsulates the film — so sterilized, so clear cut in its insistence on making a tidy story with such blatantly cruel homophobia and such shining examples of nice little gays just looking to kiss chastely and blandly in Venice that there is no room for nuance, let alone for Patrick, Tom, and even Marion to exist as full, interesting people that are both trapped in and contributing to a failure of a system. If the kind of story peddled in My Policeman — tragic and bland and vanilla and disinterested in any sort of nuanced truth — is what it takes to emotionally move those otherwise disinterested in helping the queer cause, I am frankly concerned.