Out of the Celluloid Closet

My Policeman Doesn’t Do Justice to the Real Queer Love Story Behind It

Watching Michael Grandage’s My Policeman, the little gay film that happened to be adapted from Bethan Roberts’ novel of the same name, leaves you thinking about how stiff and predictable gay cinema has become. It’s the same staid storytelling that we’ve all been forced to swallow for years: boy meets boy, boy marries a girl instead of the boy because of society, and girl gets jealous because of the other boy. Tragedy, of course, strikes, and we wait an appropriate amount of time for these individuals to grow and realize they made mistakes in their past. 

Anyone who has watched a film about a love triangle knows how these things tend to go, and screenwriter Rob Nyswaner – best known for rather bland gay awards bait like Philadelphia and Freeheld, though not without important contributions to cinema like Smithereens and The Painted Veil – does nothing to separate My Policeman from other films of its kind. It’s a dreary endeavor from start to finish, with the trio that is Tom, Patrick, and Marion never really getting a chance to exist as real characters for much time before they’re thrown into the same tropes that many a tragic gay story have thrown our way. 

It’s a shame: there’s a rich history hidden in the depths of My Policeman, something that the film entirely ignores and that Roberts’ novel gleefully exploits. Bethan Roberts—though creating an ostensibly fictional work—rather loosely adapted the life of none other than author E.M. Forster (referred to as Morgan by intimate friends) and his own relationship with both a policeman named Bob Buckingham and his wife, May. Where the film and novel tend to go for a rather tawdry retelling of this story, framing Marion as a jealous wife and Patrick as conniving, Morgan’s history is fairly different. 

Some of the beats remain the same throughout. First, the real life duo did meet and fall for each other within the constraints of a casual love affair (with Morgan once noting that Bob had “fallen very violently in liking” with him, despite formerly only sleeping with women.) One half of the pair was artsy and educated, while the other was the picture of “ordinariness.” And in both versions, Bob and May were married with a child, with some turmoil coming between them while the affair went on. 

But the thing with relationships and affairs is that they’re often more nuanced than most films care to engage with. Authors and filmmakers alike boil down history to the most recognizable arcs and emotions without bothering to explore or take interest in what really happened. But through Bethan Roberts’ glorified fanfiction, we lose the real history: Morgan, Bob, and May were, in a polyamorous relationship that is far queerer than anything My Policeman cares to give. 

The mere concept of polyamory continues to be a taboo when it comes to cinema, and biopics are particularly susceptible to rewriting history, or, as in the case of My Policeman, works that use history as a basis for fanfiction. Bohemian Rhapsody’s unwillingness to explore Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality and multiple partners is a prime example of this, and My Policeman flattens reality in the same exact way. The film is fixated on the idea that love can only exist between two individuals at once, that loathing and pain will triumph over the “other” party, and things will, eventually, fall apart.

The thing with relationships and affairs is that they’re often more nuanced than most films care to engage with.

Reality, however, was much different than fiction presents it. Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster offers a detailed journey through Forster’s life and his own navigation of queerness within his life, relationships, and writing. In the chapter “A Little Like Being Married,” the author begins to detail how Morgan and Bob first met – when they were 51 and 28 respectively, an age gap that was entirely erased in fictionalization – and the way their relationship inevitably grew to involve May, noting that their triad of sorts mirrored something of a traditional marriage that left the unspoken unexplored. It eventually developed into “a kind of grace, a complex and undefined kinship that depended on Morgan and May’s reciprocal love and admiration.” As May herself once wrote about Morgan and her husband: “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.” 

Related: Harry Styles is in a Queer Film and the Reviews are In

To be fair to My Policeman, the film does engage with the notion of the trio being happy at some point. Early on in their respective relationships, the audience watches as Tom, Patrick, and Marion go to the theater and museums together. They have dinner, they share anecdotes, they experience bits and pieces of each other’s lives and learn from one another. These are the moments when the film is at its best, but they’re quickly done away with to focus on the jealousy and subsequent splitting of the trio. This isn’t to say that there was none of that in real life, as Morgan certainly found himself devaluing the relationship between the Buckingham couple at times. However, rather than morphing from love and passion into loneliness and pain, the trio only grew closer as the years went by. 

The film is fixated on the idea that love can only exist between two individuals at once, that loathing and pain will triumph over the “other” party, and things will, eventually, fall apart.

My Policeman’s plotting—spoilers ahead!—takes the trio down a path that inevitably leads to a split: Patrick ends up alone and arrested for public indecency, as reported by Marion, while she and Tom settle into a long, tortuous relationship. Patrick and Tom are brought together again by Marion, who brings Patrick into the house to take care of him after a stroke, forcing everyone to deal with their past through a rather miserable portrait of aging and caring for one another. Everyone has been hardened by loss, Patrick and Tom retreating into themselves as Marion both attempts to make amends and refuses to acknowledge the depth of her fault in tearing apart their unconventional romance. 

Reality, by contrast, was pleasantly heartwarming in the face of various tragedies: In 1935 and 1936, E.M. Forster was recovering from prostate surgery, May had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Bob and May had sent their child Robin to live with an aunt and uncle while navigating this terrain. Bob wore himself thin by visiting all three while not working. Moffat explains that all of this awoke a tenderness in Morgan, noting that he “sent May a stream of encouraging letters, books, and little gifts […] reassuring her that all would be healed in time.” 

This exchange and support endeared Morgan and May to each other and, once they’d all returned to some semblance of stability and recovery in their lives, “relations between Morgan and the couple adjusted very subtly into a stable triangle that would sustain all three of them in different ways for the next thirty-five years.” As Moffat continues: “The terms of this innovative family structure were never codified, nor were the boundaries tested.

“Morgan and May deftly carved out an intimate space for their respective ‘marriages’ to their beloved Bob, with the long weekends for May and the short weekends for Morgan. At the little brick house standing opposite a pocket-sized park in Shepherd’s Bush, May ruled domestic life absolutely. Morgan fiercely claimed the flat at Bushwick Square, where Bob would fix an omelet on the gas ring. And wherever Morgan traveled, Bob accompanied Morgan in a cavalcade of male camaraderie.” 

My Policeman reframes the trio coming together in old age as something done out of a mixture of malice and guilt, but the reality is much simpler; as they all came closer to death, they found comfort in each other. 

It was, by any level of definition, a consensual polyamorous relationship in which May and Bob continued to be amorous just as Bob and Morgan did. Morgan himself would continue to have his own occasional flings outside of their relationship as well. Neither relationship took away from the other and they often all cared for one another, spending time together publicly and privately. Even over a decade later, as Morgan turned 71 and had to go through a second prostate operation in 1950, the trio’s relationship shifted once again, evolving into a new site of emotional care for one another. May, trained as a nurse, sat with Morgan after the surgery, as Bob, being of no relation, was barred from visiting him. “Her wisdom and medical acumen saved his life,” Moffat writes. 

Yet another decade after that, when Bob and May’s child Robin passed away in 1962 from complications that stemmed from his Hodgkin’s disease, Bob became remote, and Morgan and May grew even closer. My Policeman reframes the trio coming together in old age as something done out of a mixture of malice and guilt, but the reality is much simpler; as they all came closer to death, they found comfort in each other. 

Even in 1970, as Morgan had a final stroke at the age of 91, May and Bob were the ones who cared for him. As Moffat says near the end of A Great Unrecorded History: “In his final days he lay still and silent while May continuously held his hand. If she tried to withdraw it, he half opened an eye in remonstration. On Sunday, June 7, he died in his sleep, surrounded by his beloved family.” 

It’s the kind of beautiful story we rarely get in cinema, with only the rare work by queer filmmakers challenging the very notion of how we perceive certain cultural figures. Angela Robinson’s brilliant Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, for one, depicts a polyamorous relationship between Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Holloway, and Olive Byrne with tact and grace. Challenging the popular image of Emily Dickinson as a recluse, Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily lovingly dramatizes (and humorizes) the relationship between Dickinson and the woman married to her brother, Susan Gilbert, who inspired much of her writing. 

One could easily refute any point made here by simply emphasizing that My Policeman is, and always has been, fictional. But even when it’s not for the purposes of a biopic, in taking a person’s life and revising it for a book or a film, we end up doing no favors to the true queer histories that exist and deserve highlighting. Even in fictionalization, we should strive to tell stories that are larger than life and queerer than the tired tales we’ve been telling for decades.♦

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