Arts·Queeries

5 tragic gay historical romances you can watch instead of My Policeman

Sorry, Harry Styles fans — we've seen this story told before, and much better. From Brokeback Mountain to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we got the (other) cinema.

Sorry, Harry Styles fans: From Brokeback Mountain to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we got the (other) cinema

A still from the new film My Policeman in which the characters played by David Dawson and Harry Styles kiss on a beach.
David Dawson (left) and Harry Styles in My Policeman. (Amazon Prime)

Queeries is a column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

This week, Michael Grandage's My Policeman — otherwise known as "the other movie Harry Styles debuted at a film festival in September" or "the movie that led Harry Styles to say those things that made people mad in the Rolling Stone interview" — is being released for the world to stream on Amazon Prime.

Nobody seems particularly excited about this, and it's not just because unlike Don't Worry Darling, the film didn't have an absolutely wild press tour preceding its release to help drum up anticipation. It's also because there's not too much about My Policeman that warrants excitement. We've seen this film before, and we've seen it done much, much better.

Set in 1950s England, the film stars Styles as a closeted cop who falls in love with a museum curator (David Dawson), which doesn't exactly go over well with his wife (Emma Corrin). Without spoiling too much, there's a mostly tragic outcome, and My Policeman becomes yet another example of a very tired narrative in movies: attractive cis white queers meet and fall in love at some point in the homophobic past, and then are forced to part ways because... that's how it worked then. Sadness... for gays? Groundbreaking.

There's nothing particularly problematic or offensive about My Policeman (and the cast — Styles included — is perfectly serviceable), except perhaps how cold it left me, and how unnecessary it seemed to begin with. This is not to say we can't have another inclusion in this subgenre of queer cinema; it's just that, given how many times this type of story has been told so well, you have to really have something to say if you're going to give it another go.

My Policeman, unfortunately, does not have much to say at all (including, sorry Harry, about gay sex being "tender and loving"), and I have little more to say about it myself — except for suggesting you save yourself two hours and make your way instead to one of its many superior predecessors.

So in chronological order (in terms of the film's narrative, not its release), here are 5 tragic, queer cinematic trips to the past that are actually very much worth taking:

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

When and where it's set: 1790s Brittany, France 

Who's playing tragic: Noémie Merlant (currently in cinemas as Cate Blanchett's abused assistant Tár) and Adèle Haenel (who has since left acting for reasons not unexamined in Tár) as ill-fated lovers who meet when Merlant's Marianne is summoned to island to paint a portrait of Haenel's Héloïse, a depressive aristocrat. 

Why it's worth the journey: Because it's an emotionally devastating, brilliantly directed (by Céline Sciamma) examination of power and desire that is probably one of the 10 best films — tragic, queer or otherwise — of the last 10 years. 

How you can watch it: It's available to rent on iTunes or Amazon Video.

Ammonite

When and where it's set: 1840s Dorset, England

Who's playing tragic: Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan as ill-fated lovers who meet through a shared interest in — what else — paleontology. Their characters (Winslet's Mary Anning and Ronan's Charlotte Murchison) are loosely based on real people, though there is no proof that they were romantically involved in real life.

Why it's worth the journey: Because, anchored by its lead performances and direction (by Francis Lee, whose 2017 queer love story God's Own Country is also very worthy of your time and — spoiler alert — has a happy ending), Ammonite offers an astute depiction of a union between two complex women who have been pushed deep into themselves by grief and societal norms.

It's also notably the least celebrated film on this list, in part because it was released at the peak of the pandemic, but also because it was definitely overshadowed by the aforementioned Portrait, which came out less than a year earlier and is a tough act to follow if you're also a historical lesbian drama set in a remote seaside location well before the turn of the 20th century. So in the likelihood this might be the only film on this list you haven't already seen, make your way to it!

How you can watch it: It's available to rent on iTunes or Amazon Video.

Carol

When and where it's set: We're skipping ahead over 100 years now to 1950s New York City, USA

Who's playing tragic: Cate Blanchett (who, after Tar, is almost certainly going to have more Oscar nominations for playing a lesbian than all actual lesbians combined will have for playing them!) and Rooney Mara as ill-fated lovers who meet when Blanchett's Carol is searching for a doll for her daughter at the department store where Mara's aspiring photographer Therese is working.

Why it's worth the journey: Because queer cinema king Todd Haynes adapts Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt (via a flawless script by Phyllis Nagy) into a gorgeous, spellbinding depiction of forbidden love that will never quite leave you after you're done watching. 

How you can watch it: It's available to rent on iTunes, YouTube or Google Play.

Brokeback Mountain

When and where it's set: 1960s Wyoming, USA

Who's playing tragic: The late, great Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as ill-fated lovers who meet when they are hired to herd sheep one very special summer on the grazing pastures of Brokeback Mountain.

Why it's worth the journey: Because it's Brokeback Mountain! It was as incredible in 2005 as everyone said it was (everyone who was ready for it, at least), and it remains a deeply moving, masterfully executed (by director Ang Lee and every single actor involved, including Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the boys' beards) take on repressed passion that will leave you emotionally destroyed by the time it ends. (But, like, in a way you won't regret.)

How you can watch it: It's streaming on Crave, and available to rent on iTunes and Google Play.

Call Me By Your Name

When and where it's set: 1983 Northern Italy 

Who's playing tragic: Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer as ill-fated lovers who meet when Hammer's Oliver, an American grad student, comes to live with the family of Chalamet's Elio over a summer. 

Why it's worth the journey: Because even though the presence of Hammer may now make Call Me By Your Name an uncomfortable watch, that doesn't change the fact that Luca Guadagnino's film is an intimate and profound meditation on first heartbreak, led by a deservedly star-making performance by Chalamet. Just pretend Hammer is actually Emily in Paris heartthrob Lucas Bravo!

How you can watch it: It's available for free (with ads) on the app Tubi, which has a surprisingly vast collection of LGBTQ films — including Call Me By Your Name writer James Ivory's 1987 film Maurice, which gets an honourable mention as another historical gay drama worth watching, albeit not a particularly tragic one (and also one starring a baby Hugh Grant).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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