Adapted from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel, which was inspired by the real-life 40-year affair between author E.M. Forster and policeman Bob Buckingham, My Policeman is directed by Michael Grandage from a screenplay crafted by Ron Nyswaner.
Tony and Olivier award-winning veteran theatre director and producer Michael Grandage’s poignant sophomore feature film, My Policeman follows his astounding 2016 directorial feature debut, Genius.
Grandage became involved with My Policeman when Robbie Rogers (All American) read the novel and passed it to his partner Greg Berlanti (The Flash), who runs Berlanti Productions, who then forwarded it to screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), who adapted it.
“One of the things that appealed to me about the script—among the many reasons I wanted to make this on a cinematic level—was that I love the idea that a film if one’s lucky, can possibly be part of a wider debate. I thought, if we can get the right casting with the young three and they can bring with them a relatively young demographic, they’ll see what it’s like when you live in a society where you aren’t free to be yourself.”
The film became a reality when Grandage received a call from Harry Styles’ agent at CAA, who informed them that Styles was very enthusiastic about the screenplay that was doing its rounds.
During his meeting with Styles, Grandage was astonished to find that Styles, who had just completed Dunkirk and Don’t Worry Darling, had read the novels and screenplay many times and wanted to do the film.
A visually transporting, heart-stopping portrait of three people caught up in the shifting tides of history, liberty, and forgiveness, this masterfully crafted story of forbidden love and changing social conventions follows three young people—policeman Tom (Harry Styles), teacher Marion (Emma Corrin), and museum curator Patrick (David Dawson)—as they embark on an emotional journey, finding themselves entangled in a love triangle, as Patrick and Tom’s secret love affair clashes with the closeted policeman’s commitment to Marion. The majority of the film’s events take place at a time when homosexuality was criminalized in the U.K., though the narrative occasionally flashes forward to the 1990s, where viewers see older versions of Marion (Gina McKee), Tom (Linus Roache), and Patrick (Rupert Everett), who are still reeling with longing and regret, now they have one last chance to repair the damage of the past.
Adapting the Novel To Film
What appealed to director Michael Grandage most about the idea of adapting Bethan Roberts’ novel was that he could bring some sort of personal voice beyond his director’s voice in making a film.
“I grew up as a young boy before the law was changed. I was born into a world where homosexuality was still illegal in England. The law changed when I was young, but because it only changed in 1967 there was still a generation of prejudice that I grew up with. I’m very proud of being part of a community that has made incredible advances over the last 40 years to a place inconceivable when I was a boy thinking about gay marriage and other things that now we take for granted in the U.K. and the U.S. I do also feel that for the first time in my life, it’s slightly fragile. I think there are all sorts of shifts that mean we could easily return to that period if we’re not careful.”
” I loved the idea when I read the script, of being able to make a film that may just contribute to the debate about where we are now. That can only happen really if we get a lot of young people to see the film because the young generations, for me, are the most unprejudiced of all generations ever born, and if they can become ambassadors for why we need to keep moving forward and never return to the world where you aren’t free to be yourself, then I think that will be a powerful piece of advocacy that I will be very proud if My Policeman even contributed to it in the tiniest possible way.”
Working with the actors in bringing the characters to life
For Michael Grandage, the film would not have had the massive impact it had if it weren’t for his actors.
Currently artistic director of the Michael Grandage Company, he has directed West End and Broadway productions such as Aidan Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51, Jude Law in Henry V, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in Peter and Alice. Grandage previously served as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and Sheffield Theatres where his work included directing Chiwetel Ejiofor in Othello, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon, Derek Jacobi in King Lear, Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina in Red, Jude Law in Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov. His Olivier-winning musical productions include Guys and Dolls, Merrily We Roll Along, and Grand Hotel.
“It could have all not worked if the three of them didn’t get on and didn’t bring so much to the project themselves,” says Grandage.
Grandage has worked many times before with David Dawson, who plays museum curator Patrick, and instinctively knew was an amazing collaborator and would be ideal to work with Styles (Poileman Tom), and Emma Corrin (Teacher Marion).
“When I met him Harry, it was very clear he understood Tom and very clear he could bring something to that role, similarly with Emma. I would be extraordinarily understanding of how they wanted to be part of the message of the film, as well as playing the characters within the film and what they could bring,” says Grandage.
“I was very blessed by having those three younger actors lead that. Then, when we added three older actors to them because we were shooting them at the very end of the film, that was quite an easy process as well. It’s very rare — usually, a director is in a room trying to convince an actor to be in a film. So, it’s lovely to be in a room where the actor is telling you why they want to be in the film. It’s unusual and very welcome.”
For Grandage, the central role of policeman Tom is a difficult role for any actor.
You have to be beautiful and charismatic enough to make people believe that two people have fallen in love with you, but because you’re a policeman and fighting the law—internally fighting the law—he has to play his cards so close to his chest that he has to become almost monosyllabic. Tom is somebody who gives nothing away at all and so he becomes almost difficult to read. Those things sit slightly at odds with each other because normally in life when you meet somebody who’s fantastically charismatic and beautiful they’ve got a personality that is in step with that, but Tom is two different people in that respect.”
Harry understood all that when we first met and he knew that was the challenge of the role; somehow to be there for Patrick and Marion to respond to as a thing that they’re both drawn to, but to also give both of them very little emotionally, and that’s hard. Harry understood that if that balance can be achieved, then you start to get to the heart of Tom Burgess. That was something that he knew from day one and worked hardest at trying to make happen.
Grandage gave his actors some films to view as research
“It’s not a gay themed film, but there’s a very beautiful film by Alain Resnais called Hiroshima Mon Amour. The opening sequence is a couple on a bed and the way that their hands navigate their backs and their flesh generally is like the most extraordinary piece of sculpture. That’s very exciting to me just in the way it looks. It’s like a painting come to life. So I asked them to watch that as well as the extended intimacy scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Unlike in our film, that scene is intercut with another sequence. It goes on and on, with these two people in bed, and it tells you what you can achieve by keeping a camera on an intimacy scene as opposed to fading to something else or moving away.”
‘The other big influence for me generally was Joseph Losey’s film from 1963, The Servant, which I think is a work of absolute brilliance. In that film there is this incredible convex mirror that sits over the mantelpiece and sees everything that James Fox and Dirk Bogarde do, all the interaction between them. As a gentle, affectionate homage to that film, I asked for a convex mirror to be put in the hallway of Patrick’s apartment. So when the two men kiss for the first time, rather than shooting in the normal way you might shoot it, I wanted to shoot it through the reflection of the convex mirror because it is a kind of voyeur in the hallway, like us, we’re watching it in a slightly voyeuristic way and so is the mirror. So that was also a film that I pushed the cast towards. Those three films have been huge influences on me and I wanted to make sure that the cast knew the kind of language that I was talking about.”
Working with the actors on intimate scenes
It was important for Grandage to make all the intimate scenes like a scene in a book, actually focused on the narrative.
“Quite often in film you get scene scene scene, sex scene, scene scene scene. Somehow it’s just thrown in like, ‘this is when they have sex and now let’s go back to the story’. I wanted our sex scenes to be story scenes like the other scenes all around them, so that you get to know about the real difficulty and heartache around Marion and Tom navigating their way physically into each other’s lives. Then you get to see the complete abandonment and freedom that Tom and Patrick experience when they meet and start to physicalize their relationship.”
Grandage and his actors made use of intimacy coordinator Ben Wright, who had discussions about how they could achieve those two opposites.
“I also wanted to explain to them what I wanted the intimacy in the film to be like from a visual point of view, so I recommended a few important films that had made an impact on me through intimacy. We also talked about the sculptural nature of how I wanted some of it to look as well as the choreographic nature of how I’d like it to be. They all bought into it and they knew what I was after.”
“Very early on I made a promise to them and said, ‘Listen, we’ve all got to trust each other on this and so I want you to know that whatever we shoot, I will show you. You’re not going to come along to a premiere and see it for the first time. I want us all to be on the same page.”
“I wanted to take the intimacy and for it to play a role. I wanted there to be different kinds of intimacy between the two men, and there are three or four different acts, but I wanted the central scene to be something that was tender, and beautiful, but also telling a story about somebody experiencing something for the first time and how open and free it felt. I wanted to show on the screen what it looks like when somebody feels free in an intimate scenario, particularly in a society that categorically said, ‘what you are doing here is against the law, and you shouldn’t be free to do it’. Those two things contradict each other slightly and I wanted to show that contradiction within the framework of the film and then in the bedroom, where these things clearly happened in the 1950s but they weren’t supposed to.”
Grandage included personal touches to Patrick’s apartment
“My aunt was an artist in the early 1930s and so I thought, well, this is the 1950s and Patrick loves art, so he’d probably buy some stuff from the 30s. So I put one of her works up. I also found a picture of my own parents in the 1950s at a fancy dress party. They would have been around the same age as Patrick in the 1950s, they were all in their twenties together. So I thought they could be two friends of his at a party and put that picture on Patrick’s mantelpiece. Then I included a picture of my own partner. He sits on Patrick’s desk in a photograph. Which is a bit grim actually, now that I think about it, because we learn halfway through the film that Patrick’s boyfriend was beaten to death. But it’s there as a thing of affection for Patrick as somebody he loved and it was important to me that my own partner was somewhere in this film.”
The Michael Grandage Company launched their production of Orlando will open at the Garrick Theatre in December 2022, with Emma Corrin returning to the London stage as the title role in Orlando, from the novel by Virginia Woolf in a new version by Neil Bartlett.
“Orlando is one of the greatest novels ever written on gender identity and I’m lucky enough after all these years of knowing it, reading the book, and seeing it through Sally Potter’s movie, to finally be getting to do a stage adaptation of it. It’s one of my favorite books that helps people understand gender politics. It’s an amazing piece, written in 1928, so nearly 100 years ahead of its time. I’d recommend it to anybody who hasn’t come across it.”
Grandage first read Orlando when he was at school. “We had the most inspiring English teacher who suggested that we should all ‘look beyond the curriculum’, as I can remember him saying. He pointed me in the direction of Virginia Woolf and that’s how I came across Orlando. Maybe he knew something about me that I didn’t know at the time.”