The narrative behind the big Harry Styles bid for movie stardom has so far been more alluring than the actual Harry Styles bid for movie stardom, an all-too-perfect ascent rapidly losing steam by the day. The teen heartthrob turned legit pop star kicked things off not inauspiciously, with a small turn in a large movie, Christopher Nolan’s second world war epic Dunkirk, and he proceeded to book back-to-back biggies, Olivia Wilde’s suburban sci-fi thriller Don’t Worry Darling and prestige gay romance My Policeman, both films headed for glitzy premieres on the fall festival circuit.
But as the train was ready to leave the station, the wheels were already close to falling off, a swirl of negativity surrounding both films and both performances. By now, reports of toxicity on the set (and at the premiere) of Don’t Worry Darling have been eclipsed by reviews of equal toxicity as the film sank in the canals of Venice with a mostly worrying response. The majority of critics slapped a massive question mark on Styles’s acting ability, a role too limited and limiting to tell us all that much met with an anticlimactic sea of shrugs.
Although that would now seem rapturous in comparison to what Styles might be receiving for his follow-up, a polite and anonymous melodrama that should provide the confirmation many were looking for. Just weeks after his misfiring comments surrounding gay sex were being rightfully critiqued, it appears that his performance will also be, a turn just as tepid as his soundbites. The film, based on the novel by Bethan Roberts, isn’t exactly a washout but it’s not exactly much of anything, a disappointingly drab and stridently straightforward love triangle saga overstuffed with furtive glances and maudlin moping while underpowered by a blank lead performance. If the wheels were coming off pre-festivals, consider the train completely crashed now.
It’s Brighton in the 50s and Styles plays our policeman Tom, who begins a glacially paced relationship with Marion (The Crown breakout Emma Corrin), a local teacher who begins to worry that things are a little one-sided. Tom introduces Marion to Patrick (David Dawson), a museum curator who becomes a close friend to them both, the three sharing a rare, intimate bond. But Tom and Patrick are closer than it seems and, at a time when being gay was still illegal, their affair threatens to destroy everything. The framing device sees Marion and Tom still married years later (played by Gina McKee and Linus Roache) as they take in a disabled Patrick (Rupert Everett), much to Tom’s displeasure, scenes of the two periods alternating.
Styles might look like the handsome movie star he’s being aggressively pushed as with his sleek matinee idol hair always in place but he’s all construct and no conviction, a performer as unsure of his ability as we are. There’s a crucial dissonance between the confidence he exudes on stage and the awkwardness we see on screen, a star fizzling out right before our very eyes, as uncomfortable for us as it appears to be for him. There’s too much of a visible process to his acting, the joins of what he’s doing, or trying to, always on display, with a messy, uneven accent requiring an added level of thinking to his every line of dialogue, making the character’s many instinctive moments feel sluggish and stilted. Words are over-pronounced with a sort of stage school affect that clashes with what’s supposed to be an earthy, beer-drinking vision of hyper-masculinity.
Defenders might argue that Styles’s second guessing is in fact perfect for a character trying to hide his sexuality, but that would be an overly generous reading for even in his most intimate and private sexual moments, he remains overly, distractingly hesitant. Navigating the world as a queer person, especially in a time when it was still punishable by law, requires too much complexity for someone still testing out his sea legs, it’s essentially two roles at a time when he struggles to play one. He’s drowning in the deep end and it sinks the movie around him.
Not that an actor of more skill and experience could do that much more with something that’s painted in such boringly broad strokes. The characters are based less on real people and more on romantic drama types, lacking in idiosyncrasies and texture, familiar more to people who have watched others be in relationships on film than people who have actually been in them themselves. The queerness does little to differentiate the triangle from so many others we’ve already seen and what’s frustrating for those with even a cursory knowledge of gay cinema is that so many films before it have carefully navigated similarly tricky territory with ease and insight, from Basil Dearden’s Victim and William Wyler’s adaptation of The Children’s Hour both in 1961, James Ivory’s Maurice in 1987 and, more recently, Terence Davies’s devastating Benediction. The stinging tragedy of being gay at the wrong time in history is something that will always prove ripe for emotive, painful drama but director Michael Grandage struggles to pull our heartstrings, an easy target easily missed.
His direction insists that we find meaning or emotional resonance in the small details of the everyday but Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner’s perfunctory script rarely gives us enough reason to. It’s a prestige shell for a film that mostly plays like a stodgy soap opera, a misguided hope that we might be suckered into thinking that this is all of more substance if it’s presented in more elegant packaging. Corrin and Dawson are easily more effective than Styles but still a little too mannered to pierce through and so it’s up to the elder iterations to do the heavy lifting and, while Everett is stuck in a thankless role that essentially just requires him to dribble and wail, in small, all-too-fleeting bursts, McKee and Roache manage to make us believe in a difficult dynamic against considerable odds. Exploring the festering consequences of a marriage built on this specific kind of lie is far more dramatically interesting than the blandness of what comes before and a better film might have tipped the balance in their favour. Their scenes arrest but the rest of the film is nowhere near as charged as it should be.
My Policeman is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be available on Amazon from 4 November