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My Policeman review: Harry Styles is criminally bad in this clunky, ineffective period drama

The pop star follows up ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ with another leaden, oddly accented acting performance

Jessie Thompson
Friday 21 October 2022 07:28 BST
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My Policeman

Dir: Michael Grandage. Starring: Emma Corrin, Harry Styles, David Dawson, Gina McKee, Rupert Everett, Linus Roache. 15, 113 minutes.

In My Policeman, Harry Styles plays an officer of the law in 1950s Brighton – which is ironic, because his acting is criminally bad. He does not have to say anything, but anything he does say will be delivered as though he read it on a piece of paper five minutes previously. After diplomatically average reviews for his performance in Don’t Worry Darling, it’s clear that the lead role in Michael Grandage’s adaptation of Bethan Robert’s novel has left him overexposed as an actor. His presence is leaden. The accent is all over the place. And he doesn’t have the technique to convey whatever ideas he may have had about his character. Let’s hope Olivia Wilde is allowed to bring her special salad dressing to whichever acting prison he is going to.

The travesty is that a powerful lead performance might have elevated Grandage’s film to a superior category. Namely: “British films about longing and wasted lives that you put on when you need a cry”. (See: The Remains of the Day, Atonement, etc.) Or its lower leagues, at least. It’s summer in the Fifties. Brighton’s pebbly beach is blanketed with sun. Young, bathing-suit clad people, with a sense of their own destiny, are ready to pair off. Policeman Tom (Styles) meets shy schoolteacher Marion (Emma Corrin); he gives her swimming lessons and she tells him which books to read. She’s smitten with him; he seems happy to go along with it, because blokes then would do that if you made their dinner for them. Except it turns out he was happy to go along with it for another reason – he’s entangled in a clandestine love affair with art curator Patrick (David Dawson). On a foundation of secrets and lies, they form an art-loving trio who rollick around going to concerts and galleries together, with Marion innocently unaware of the truth.

Tom is the prize that both Marion and Patrick covet, and the film seems to want to make a sex object of him. We know little about this earthy, humble chap, or why either of them like him, other than the fact he is sexy. When Marion explains to her friend why she loves him, she says it’s because “he’s just perfect… he’s just Tom”. Patrick refers to him as “my policeman”. But one of the film’s major issues is that Tom is not sexy, because it’s not sexy to watch someone do something badly, and Styles is bad at acting. You could argue that Tom, trying to deny his sexuality and cleave to a traditional idea of masculinity, doesn’t know who he is. But here he doesn’t even feel coloured in.

Corrin does well with what little they are given to do. They summon the wide-eyed delight at bagging Tom, which later curdles into a stoical bewilderment at a man who seems so disappointing. In more dramatic scenes, they ricochet around like a wounded animal. Dawson – a brilliant actor often underserved because he has a period drama face – is excellent as Patrick, always with a knowing smile, embracing himself in a world that might have left him consumed by resentment.

Grandage captures Tom and Patrick’s most private moments as though we were watching them on CCTV, or with spies behind mirrors. It’s a reminder – as is Patrick’s admission that his partner was beaten to death – that their love for one another isn’t allowed. But there are major moments of pain and betrayal that should feel like a punch but remain curiously ineffective. Sussex’s wonderful secret beaches and pockets of drizzly suburbia somehow seem strangely anonymous here. And Ron Nyswaner’s script is full of lines of clunking portent.

When Patrick declares his favourite book is Anna Karenina, he laments: “All love stories are tragic, aren’t they?” Looking at the waves in a Turner painting, he opines: “You feel they could crush you or take you under.” Admiring the passion in a Blake illustration, he proclaims: “You just have to let it take hold of you.” We get it: bang while you can, because there will be doom.

Intermittently, the film jumps forward to the Nineties. Everyone is grey and morose. Marion (Gina McKee) and Tom (Linus Roache) are retired and living an armistice-like existence alongside one another, while Patrick (Rupert Everett) has had a stroke. Marion agrees to care for him, while Tom avoids him entirely. These actors do well with the slightly thankless task of playing these crumpled, battle-worn versions, treading on tiptoes around old wounds that haven’t gone away. But it mainly involves looking wistfully out of windows.

As a film about life under homophobic laws, My Policeman has political importance. It is about individual betrayals that only happened because of state-sanctioned prejudice. And it has the ingredients for something good: tormented emotions, a compelling triangle and a message. But I just kept thinking about what a film it could have been with a truly electric lead performance. Without one, it just doesn’t work. As Patrick says to Tom as he sketches his portrait: “I can’t draw you if I don’t know who you are.”

‘My Policeman’ is in cinemas from 21 October, and arrives on Prime Video on 4 November

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