In late 1950s Brighton, a policeman is courting a schoolteacher. Marion (Corrin) is pretty but bookish and surprised that Tom (Styles) has shown an interest in her. In a swimming pool where he is giving her lessons, she hangs back just to admire his beauty. It’s a telling moment for two reasons: a tacit recognition that many viewers will come to this film just to gawk at Styles, an international pop star, and a portent of the at-a-remove quality that will dog the rest of the film.
Soon, Marion and Tom gain a friend, a slightly older museum curator named Patrick (Dawson) who expands their worldviews to include art and opera and gourmet food; he becomes their constant companion. Only later, when the origins of their friendships are retold from a different perspective, do we realize that Patrick’s role is not what it seems. The film further peels back the layers by incorporating voiceover from Patrick’s diary at the time, which Marion is reading decades in the future, when the three are under the same roof as Patrick recovers from a stroke. (They are played in their 60s by Gina McKee as Marion, Rupert Everett as Patrick, and Linus Roache as Tom; passable duplicates of their younger counterparts, but not especially convincing as sharing the same soul or life experience.)
What Marion doesn’t know is that Tom and Patrick have fallen in love and continue their affair even after she and Tom have married. The script – by Ron Nyswaner (an Oscar nominee for Philadelphia), adapted from Bethan Roberts’ book – effectively conveys the terrors of the times, in which homosexuality was illegal and a back alley tryst could get you beaten and arrested, and Patrick’s own experience with police brutality complicates his attraction to the man he calls “my policeman” in his diary. Similarly, director Michael Grandage – showing the same facility with period detail and sensibility as he did in Genius, his 2016 drama about novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins – presents a credible depiction of the punishingly restrictive era. But that’s all table setting for what should be the main course: the roiling inner lives of these people. And yet they never feel like flesh-and-blood: not at the swimming pool or the opera or even when stripped down naked to perform tastefully choreographed lovemaking for the camera.
Forbidden love! Terrible betrayals! Decades-old repressed truths! The plot elements are all there for something emotional wrecking, but Grandage and his cast approach it with such enormous restraint, the oxygen is cut off completely. This is bloodless filmmaking.