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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Guy Lodge

Even Harry Styles’ presence can’t make My Policeman’s discussion of queerness interesting

Too timid … David Dawson and Harry Styles in My Policeman.
Too timid … David Dawson and Harry Styles in My Policeman. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Twenty-nine years ago, Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia was hailed as something of a Hollywood milestone: a major studio film about homosexuality and Aids, with a gay male protagonist who was both sympathetic and HIV+. Its breakthroughs were, however, all couched in compromise, steering the film cautiously toward a straight audience.

Director Jonathan Demme was straight; so was Tom Hanks, a canny choice for the lead. That he was straight was a given, since the film needed an A-list star to sell itself to the public, and the options then didn’t extend into the LGBTQ sphere. (They barely do now.) But Hanks was branded as an affable, approachable screen presence, one whom timid audiences could just about stomach watching as he chastely kissed Antonio Banderas (also straight, though put through steamier queer paces by Pedro Almodovar). More intimate scenes between them, including one in bed, were cut from the final edit. The caution paid off: respectfully if not ecstatically reviewed, Philadelphia grossed over $200m worldwide, and won two Oscars, including one for Hanks.

Its queer credentials rested on its gay screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who landed an Oscar nomination himself for his pains. If he was at all irked by seeing his work given the straightest possible treatment on its way to the screen, he kept tactfully silent. He didn’t hold his tongue, however, in 2015, when his script for Freeheld, a true story about a lesbian couple’s fight for equal pension benefits, was made into a rather beige film by director Peter Sollett. Despite fine performances by Julianne Moore and Elliot Page – who at the time identified as a gay woman – Nyswaner felt his script had been “de-gayed” by the film’s producers.

Nyswaner said at an LGBTQ awards ceremony: “Out of fear they were normalised … The gay characters were idealised. Their edges were smoothed out. The conflict between them was softened. Over my vigorous objections by the way, for the record. God forbid someone might think we were making a movie about a couple of dykes.” He later apologised for his words, stating he’d spoken out of turn and placing some blame on his script. Watching the film, both little-seen and little-remembered, it was hard not to feel he had a point.

Tom Hanks in the film Philadelphia, 1993.

Which brings us to My Policeman, Nyswaner’s latest queer-themed script, about a conflicted gay policeman, Tom, who marries a naive young woman, Marion, to wrest himself out of an affair with museum curator Patrick in 1950s Brighton – only for that decision to haunt all three 40 years later. On paper, at least, the film appears to reverse some representational imbalances of the past. Its director, Michael Grandage, is gay, as are at least two of its producers, American TV superpower couple Greg Berlanti and his husband Robbie Rogers.

Furthermore, at a time when Hanks himself said that Philadelphia should rightly have had a gay star – viewers “wouldn’t accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy [now]” – My Policeman’s casting has carefully ensured some LGBTQ+ presence in its love triangle. Two gay actors, David Dawson and Rupert Everett, play the younger and older Patrick; female lead Emma Corrin is queer and non-binary, even if her character is very much not. As for Tom, casting pop star Harry Styles – whose refusal to discuss his sexuality has seen him accused of “queerbaiting” in some circles – is a savvy publicity hook. Those militant about onscreen representation might call it a cop-out, but the merits of Styles’ rather stiff performance aside, he’s not altogether inappropriate for a character whose relationship to his queerness is far from certain or comfortable.

And yet, and yet. For all these advances, the drab, turgid finished film feels scarcely less bland and timid than the compromised, straight-angled prestige gay dramas of less liberated times. What could be a rather ruthless, lacerating story of ruinous self-denial and homophobic betrayal instead emerges as a one-note study of gay martyrdom, one so narrowly focused on queer repression that queer expression never gets a look-in. Cinematically, it’s as flat and grey as the drizzly south coast seascapes to which the characters’ older incarnations are confined: one wonders if the Styles stans who have been cheerleading the film for months will be surprised by how much screen time is given over to Gina McKee staring glumly out of picture windows.

David Dawson and Harry Styles in My Policeman, 2022.

Given this prevailing vibe, the film’s much-vaunted sex scenes between the Styles and Dawson characters do stand out, at least, for their dreamy, golden-filtered romanticism: at one point, Vivaldi’s Gloria swamps the soundtrack as the camera, following Dawson’s gaze, alights on Styles’ well-turned ass. The scenes of intercourse, heavy on sinewy limbs and backs tensing and collapsing to amplified, ecstatic gasps, are certainly more explicit than anything that would have been permitted in the mainstream around the time of Philadelphia, even if they’re also carefully blocked and framed so as not to offend the grey-pound crowd that – alongside the cult of Styles, in a rather odd mix – should be the film’s primary audience.

Grandage, rather loftily, named the “very sculptural” body language of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour as a key inspiration in shooting, though he’s at pains to stress their tenderness rather than their eroticism. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he stated his intention to “quite literally show something that was about ‘lovemaking’ in the broadest sense of the word, something that was choreographically interesting and not just some kind of thrusting sense of sex going on.” This quote lines up with Styles’ own, more heavily publicised comments on the sex scenes: “So much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it. There will be, I would imagine, some people who watch it who were very much alive during this time when it was illegal to be gay, and [Michael] wanted to show that it’s tender and loving and sensitive.”

Back in August, I wrote a piece on the disappointingly regressive nature of such statements, which tacitly shame the notion of queer sex that is anything other than gentle, and seem calculated to appease the kind of straight viewer who’s OK with homosexuality in principle, as long as it’s not “shoved in their face”. Is there anything less worthy of respect about “a thrusting sense of sex” or “two guys going at it”? Wouldn’t a more honest, sensual film about gay romance show sex as the visceral, imperfect, sometimes clumsy act that it is?

I had hoped that My Policeman might somehow disprove its own publicity, but alas, the film feels marked by that very coyness. Its onscreen “lovemaking” is tastefully hot, and may even be quite sculptural, but it never looks, sounds or feels especially real, which at least makes it of a piece with the stifled, maudlin melodrama surrounding these gauzy, sweaty high points. Three decades on from Philadelphia, Nyswaner and Grandage have at least proved that queer film-makers can make their own sanitised, safe-playing queer films. That’s its own kind of breakthrough.

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