“My Policeman” brings together two distinctly contemporary young stars — Harry Styles and Emma Corrin — for a period story that takes on a strong resonance today.
The decades-spanning film, which premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival, uses six actors to depict three characters. In 1950s Britain, a small-town police officer, Tom (Styles) marries a local teacher, Marion (Corrin). Their close friend, museum curator Patrick (David Dawson), introduces them to a world of culture and adventure, and Tom and Patrick eventually initiate a passionate, clandestine affair. At a time when it was illegal to be gay, with a penalty of going to prison, their happy trio is eventually torn apart by jealousy, prejudice, confusion and a deep betrayal.
Years later, as Marion and Tom (now played by Gina McKee and Linus Roache) have remained in a functional but passionless marriage, they take in Patrick (Rupert Everett) as he recovers from a stroke. All three of them reevaluate their lives and decisions.
The movie, in theaters Oct. 21 and on Amazon Prime Video Nov. 4, is adapted from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (an Oscar nominee for “Philadelphia”) and is directed by Micheal Grandage, with Greg Berlanti and Robbie Rogers among its producers. In addition to making its world premiere, the film will be recognized during the festival’s Tribute Awards, with the core six-person ensemble set to receive a collective performance award.
For Corrin, 26, who shot to fame portraying Princess Diana in “The Crown,” the role in “My Policeman” comes at a pivotal career moment. Recently the first nonbinary cover star on the American edition of Vogue magazine, Corrin also headlined a new adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” for Netflix, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival.
What appealed to Corrin, who uses they/them pronouns, about the story of “My Policeman” was the way it was both a tale of the past but also very much had things to say about the present. Even in the time that the film was being made, there has been a rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation and sentiment in the United States and around the world. The film’s depiction of the impact that prejudice can have on people’s lives and relationships takes on a newfound relevance and animating energy.
“It was dealing with issues that were obviously incredibly prevalent in the ’50s, with homosexuality being illegal, but also I think speaks to a lot of issues still very prevalent today,” said Corrin. “I think that people will go to see it thinking this is going to be something about a different time. And actually, maybe it’s what we should be talking about now.
“I felt like that was really like important and something that I felt very strongly about,” said Corrin. “And then it was a beautiful tale about love and friendship and the different kinds of love that exist and what it takes to make to marriage work and where friendship and trust reside in love.”
Grandage, a Tony and Olivier Award-winning director of theater, is making his second feature film with “My Policeman,” following 2018’s “Genius.” For him there was an immediate connection to the story of “My Policeman,” though he saw his response to it change over the time of its making.
“Sadly I’m old enough that I was born into the world that these characters are in at the beginning of our story,” said Grandage, 60. “And over my lifetime, I’ve seen and been involved in a very seismic shift in how the world has changed in terms of LGBTQ rights. And I’ve never known it in my lifetime as fragile as it is at this moment in time. And I just think the film therefore actually takes on something that I didn’t expect, but something I’m delighted for it to be part of.”
For Dawson, 40, who had previously been directed by Grandage onstage, there was also a strong connection to the material, and cause for personal reflection.
“Reading the script, in many ways, this story felt quite personal,” said Dawson. “To me, I’m a gay man myself and to delve back into my own country’s history and where I grew up and where I live and to acknowledge that this could have been my life if I’d had been a young man in ’50s Britain, in my head it’s like a jigsaw of how we are today is because of things that we’ve done before. That made it very special to work on.”
For Corrin to play a character who becomes in many ways defined by her own prejudice and emotional confusion was particularly difficult.
“It was hard. I won’t lie,” Corrin said. “It’s a strange one, but also I think in the context of the story it’s telling there was comfort for me that her moments of being misguided and her actions, which are thoughtless and fueled by this anger and this hurt, are fueled by something other — she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She hasn’t thought it through. That was comforting.
“Her naivety, I think is really interesting,” said Corrin. “I found that very curious and I found myself exploring why she would do things and why she thinks the way she does. And her misunderstanding and ignorance of the world and her part in it definitely follows her, the guilt follows when she’s older. I think you really feel that in Gina’s performance.”
Working with both Corrin and McKee to craft the character of Marion, across a span of 40 years, brought an unexpected perspective with Grandage’s understanding of the character and her motivations.
“One of the things that I have found interesting generally in making this film, it’s gone somewhere, I suppose, to explain prejudice from a certain generation,” said Grandage, “which is that the prejudice that generation felt wasn’t necessarily because of prejudice against the act or people that might had been involved. It was more because they were law-abiding citizens and the law told them it was wrong.
“In discussions with both Gina and Emma,” Grandage said, “it was about trying to unpick the prejudice and how it probably came from living in a society where the law of the land tells you something is fundamentally wrong and you should be going to jail for it, getting your head around that is one of the biggest discussions, just from a motivational point of view about discovering the nature of prejudice. I think that was something that was really unpicked as part of the rehearsal process.”
As Marion comes to feel betrayed by Tom and Patrick, she has to examine whether she had any hints or signals in her relationship with Tom that might have made her aware of what was to come. Styles and Corrin depict the couple as two lonely people who find a deep affection and appreciation in each other, even if their relationship is not motivated by conventional passions.
“I think that from the very moment Marion meets Tom, she sort of knows that he’s not going to be able to give her what she wants,” said Corrin. “but there’s this part of her that is so curious and so determined to make it work. And that’s an insane strength weirdly, you see carrying on even when we get to Gina’s part of the story. She can’t face up to the fact that the voice in the back of her head saying, ‘it’s not right, something’s not right,’ was right.”
Corrin’s two upcoming roles make for an intriguing counterpoint to one another. In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” an adaptation of the notorious novel by D.H. Lawrence directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Corrin plays a woman in the throes of a passionate affair, expressing an ascending inner light of self-discovery that shines brightly, while in “My Policeman” one sees that light dimmed or even snuffed out by misunderstanding and prejudice.
“I do happen to think Emma is a kind of extraordinary star,” said Grandage. “It’s just some extraordinary understanding of something that seems to go quite deep and also the ability to trust that their emotional life doesn’t need to be overplayed. It’s a great acting skill just to know that your face, if you are feeling it, that your face will register that feeling somewhere and somehow, and Emma’s got that ability. It’s very, very powerful and phenomenally heartbreaking.”
“Emma is somebody very special,” added Dawson. “I think they just bring a warmth to a set with them. It’s like innate in Emma, which makes scenes with them incredibly fun, which I think you can get the best out of everybody involved when a set feels supported and fun. There’s a mischief in their eye, which I like.”
Grandage and Corrin will reunite later this fall as the director and star of a London stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” which was so memorably brought to the screen in Sally Potter’s 1992 film starring Tilda Swinton.
“It really captures the beauty of fluidity in a way that I think is totally unparalleled,” said Corrin of the story, about a poet who changes from a man to a woman and lives across centuries. “I think it’s a good depiction of it and all of the feelings that comes with it. So I’m excited.”
“My Policeman” is far from a conventional period drama, capturing emotional complexities and cultural nuance, with Styles and Corrin in particular giving the movie a jolt of contemporary energy.
“One of the things about having people like Harry Styles in the film like this is it means it’s going to get an audience that maybe, just maybe, don’t know anything about what it was like in a time period in my own lifetime where it was illegal effectively to be who you are,” said Grandage.
“And I think that is a very powerful and important and potent message to start getting across, particularly to young people,” Grandage said. “That if you want to roll back those laws, then this is the kind of life that people may have again. And do you really want to even contemplate that?”