I’m not going to say pop star Harry Styles is a terrible actor; he’s not. Mostly he’s perfectly adequate at saying the lines in the script convincingly enough that it doesn’t take you out of the story or make you think “jeez, this guy sucks.” Mostly you think, “Eh, he’s fine.”
However, My Policeman, Styles’ latest film in which he plays a gay policeman in 1950s Britain, is the kind of movie that normally stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, young up-and-comers at the top of their game. Aside from the fact that this maudlin weepy about tragic gays is at least 15 years past its sell-by date, it needs an actor who can do more than just adequately deliver the lines on the page. Considering it’s largely a story of repressed people yearning, pining, lusting, regretting… etc — I would argue that most of its appeal rests on that which isn’t on the page. If I squint to imagine the movie My Policeman could be and not the movie that it is, it’s an actor’s showcase. And Harry Styles isn’t an actor, at least not yet.
The opening frame is set in early nineties-ish Sussex, where silver foxes Marion and Tom (Gina McKee and Linus Roache) are arguing about Marion’s decision to become caretaker for stroke victim Patrick, played Rupert Everett in full lookin’-old-for-the-accolades mode. Tom is upset about Patrick being in the house and says Marion doesn’t owe him anything. Raising the obvious question, what’s the deal with their whole relationship?
Luckily there’s a flashback for that, starring Harry Styles as Young Tom, David Dawson as Young Patrick, and Emma Corrin as Young Marion. Young Tom, a cub policeman, proposes to Young Marion, even though he’s also in a sort of ambiguous relationship with Young Patrick, a slightly less young museum curator. Is Tom and Marion’s marriage a closeted man’s marriage of convenience, and who does it end up hurting?
The irony is that My Policeman itself is something of a marriage of convenience. I doubt the filmmakers (director Michael Grandage and writer Ron Nyswaner, adapting from the 2012 novel by Bethan Roberts) wanted Harry Styles because they thought he was a brilliant actor who’d be the best choice for the role. Probably it was more that he was an international pop star with a level of fame that made getting the movie financed feasible. For Styles, who has been known to be photographed wearing women’s clothes and has been accused of exploiting “queer” aesthetics, he gets to further his sort of pansexual, love-is-love public persona by playing a gay man. Which is to say: these were all economic decisions. They were career decisions. It doesn’t strike you that either party undertook this relationship because they thought it would make for a better movie. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t.
There’s a pivotal scene in My Policeman when Tom, who spends the movie mostly lying and dissembling to everyone, especially himself, finally comes clean to his wife about his gay relationship. It’s the kind of scene that, in the context of this (honestly kinda dull) movie, should land like a cymbal crash. It’s clearly intended to be a kind of crescendo, and while Styles doesn’t drastically underact it, and could never be accused of overacting it, as it mostly lands with all the gravity of a scone on tea plate. It’s just sort of there. It’s not a disaster, it’s just kind of banal and not noteworthy.
All that said, that My Policeman doesn’t work because of Styles is not entirely true. It’s locked into a depiction of being tragically gay in a time that wouldn’t allow it, with all the tears, bigotry, brutality, and repressed feelings that entails, which feels very of a time. My Policeman does precious little exploring of the joyful side of this unconventional three-way relationship and lots of wallowing in the sadness of it all. And if I’m going to wallow, I’d at least like to have it feel like a fresh wallow. I never like to repeat a wallow. And My Policeman feels decidedly like an echo of wallows past.