My Policeman: The unlikely literary inspiration behind the new Harry Styles film

Styles is perfectly cast as Bethan Roberts' quietly charismatic policeman caught in a complex love triangle with his wife and another man. But did you know the story is also based on the life of E. M. Forster?

A collage of Harry Styles and Emma Corrin in front of a photograph of Brighton Pier against an orange background
My Policeman: Harry Styles and Emma Corrin. Image: Getty/Penguin

Even for those not wedded to One Direction, the recent hysteria surrounding former bandmate Harry Styles has been difficult to ignore – not just his chart-topping new album and the furore surrounding the press tour for psychological thriller Don't Worry Darling (not to mention #SpitGate), but for his latest role, too: an adaptation of Bethan Roberts’s 2012 novel My Policeman. Starring alongside The Crown’s Emma Corrin and Olivier Award nominated actor David Dawson, Styles plays the titular role. 

Styles is increasingly no stranger to the cameras. There was a small, if show-stealing, role in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 World War II epic Dunkirk, and of course Don’t Worry Darling. Perhaps it’s the uniform, or perhaps it’s the gay love triangle at the heart of Roberts’ story, but Styles as Tom from My Policeman has caused huge excitement among fans on social media ever since pap shots from the set emerged back in May.

The adaptation of My Policeman is particularly intriguing. Not only is the film a fairly low-key indie, the source material is a complex and rich novel about the fraught realities of human desire and the lasting repercussions that our actions can have. It also has a fascinating literary love story at its heart.

Through Marion’s letters and Patrick’s diary entries, Roberts shows us how both loved Tom. She always addresses her husband as “my policeman”, and as readers we learn of her inability – or unwillingness – to acknowledge the precarious and questionable building blocks of their marriage. Patrick’s 1950s diary entries, meanwhile, tell of a love affair that explores the legal and societal restrictions that gay men were living under at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.

But as Marion, Patrick and Tom grapple with their secretive love triangle, the pressure and lies become too much for one participant, leading to devastating and heart-breaking consequences that irrevocably alter all three characters’ lives.

Roberts’ book is rich with historical detail, from the descriptions of mid-century Brighton and inclusion of period slang to the harsh realities of life for gay men at that time. The author sensitively explores the necessary contingencies that many men took in order to keep their relationships safe – notably demonstrated by Patrick’s friendship with Marion. We see, too, the complexities of class divisions between Patrick, an educated museum curator, and Marion and Tom, the latter of whom is drawn in by the cultured and relatively privileged life that Patrick lives.

'Such an arrangement may only have worked in conditions of complete silence about the true nature of Forster's relationship'

But Roberts was also inspired by a real-life literary romance: the relationship between writer EM Forster and married policeman Robert Buckingham. Like Tom and Patrick, there was an age gap between the 28-year-old Buckingham and Forster, who was 51. Like Marion, Buckingham’s wife May also became a nursemaid for Forster in his later years.

Writing about the relationship between all three in The Guardian, Roberts explained that “a functioning triangular arrangement was firmly established with the two of them sharing their beloved Buckingham; the long weekends were for May, the short ones for Forster. Such an arrangement may only have worked in conditions of complete silence about the true nature of Forster's relationship with Buckingham; but it did, at least, work.”

After Forster experienced his final stroke in 1970, he moved to the Buckinghams' home in Coventry. May was with him the day he died, holding his hand. “I now know that he was in love with Robert and therefore critical and jealous of me and our early years were very stormy, mostly because he had not the faintest idea of the pattern of our lives and was determined that Robert should not be engulfed in domesticity,” she later wrote. “Over the years he changed us both and he and I came to love one another, able to share the joys and sorrows that came.”

The situation between Tom, Marion and Patrick in My Policeman doesn’t quite play out as kindly, although it is a reminder that these muddy and complex romantic triangles were hardly uncommon. In fact, the writer Patrick Gale’s TV drama, The Man in an Orange Shirt, was loosely based on love letters his father had received from another man, letters his mother burned.

There’s a stoic quality to Styles, his reservedness in interviews similar to Tom’s quiet reticent shyness.

The film adaptation of My Policeman incorporates the dual timeline of the novel. Gina McKee, Linus Roache and Rupert Everett have all been cast as older versions of Marion, Tom and Patrick, respectively. The film also doesn't shy away from the more intimate aspects of Patrick and Tom’s relationship. Directing the film is former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage, and the Oscar-nominated scriptwriter of Philadelphia, Ron Nyswaner, wrote the script.

Styles, meanwhile, is the perfect casting for Tom. While he might not be blonde nor as broad as Tom is described as in Roberts’ novel, he undoubtedly exudes the enigmatic allure and good looks that the policeman exerts over both Marion and Patrick. There’s also a stoic quality to Styles, similar to Tom’s quiet, reticent shyness.

With the film now out, viewers themselves can decide whether My Policeman traces the nuances of Roberts’s book in the same way that the adaptations of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours did. Until then – and after – reading Bethan Roberts’s book is highly recommended.

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