The world belongs to Harry Styles. The popstar-turned-aspiring-thespian is having a whirlwind year. Topping the charts in countless countries with his third solo album Harry’s House, showing up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, appearing in the most discussed film of the year Don’t Worry Darling - don’t even get me started on Spitgate. And now he’s the headline act of Michael Grandage’s gay period piece My Policeman, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Styles has proven he’s perfectly adequate in supporting roles like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. He was required to flex his acting chops a little more in Don’t Worry Darling in which he was directed by his now real-life partner Olivia Wilde - but even there he was propped up by an always-reliable Florence Pugh. The question was; can Styles truly lead a film? He tries.
Adapted from Bethan Roberts’s novel by scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner, My Policeman is a tale of forbidden love and evolving societal attitudes. Set in the seaside town of Brighton (the UK’s unofficial gay capital), Grandage tells the story of a love triangle that spans four decades. Two sets of actors play the three parts. In the late 1950s, we have copper Tom Burgess (Styles), who begins courting school teacher Marion (Emma Corrin). After a chance encounter in the street, a museum curator and artist named Patrick (a splendid David Dawson) befriends the couple and introduces them to a sophisticated world of arts and high culture.
By contrast in the 1990s, we have Rupert Everett now playing Patrick who has recently suffered a stroke and is under the care of Marion (Gina McKee) despite the objections of her now-husband Tom (Linus Roache). A complex history is evident but how did they get here?
As we weave between the eras, we learn that Tom and Patrick were secretly lovers during a time when it was still a criminal offence to be gay. Even Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, and forced to submit to “chemical castration”. Burgess being a bobby adds another level of danger to their scenario but sadly there’s nothing remotely arresting about My Policeman. The sex scenes are bountiful and shot with passion but the story remains rather flat. The lack of chemistry between Styles and Corrin makes it difficult to buy into them as a couple.
Thank goodness for David Dawson’s quietly commanding turn as Patrick. It’s a performance where a lifetime of concealing one’s true identity out of self-preservation, is completely apparent but conveyed with great subtext. It’s a real shame Dawson is unlikely to be at the forefront of the discourse surrounding My Policeman when all anyone will want to know is, is Styles any good?
I can reveal, Styles isn’t bad, he’s merely outshone by the entire ensemble, all of whom are more experienced than he is. He’s coasting on broody stares and eruptive displays of emotion. It’s all surface and no nuance.
It doesn’t help a rookie actor that Nyswaner’s script is lifeless, with clunky plot development, and ultimately has little to say other than “we aren’t the same people we were 40 years ago”.
Ben Davis is fast becoming the go-to guy for coastal-set cinematography. Both his 2022 projects, this film and The Banshees of Inisherin feature crashing waves symbolising the inner turmoil of their characters. It also evokes the work of artist J.M.W. Turner (though his favoured English coastal town was Margate), which of course gets a mention while the trio is taking a tour through Patrick’s exhibition. Subtle.
Unfortunately, as far as adaptations go about the love that dares not speak its name, My Policeman simply doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s competently shot and the score by Steven Price is imbued with longing, guilt and regret, but the real crime of this film is how painfully average it is.
113 mins, cert 15
My Policeman is at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on October 21