Jhe narrative behind Harry Styles’ big bid for movie stardom has so far been more enticing than Harry Styles’ real bid for movie stardom, a too-perfect rise rapidly losing steam by the day. The teen idol-turned-legit pop star kicked things off in a non-detrimental way, with a little spin in a big movie, Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk, and he started booking Back-to-back biggies, Olivia Wilde’s suburban sci-fi thriller Don’t Worry Darling and high-profile gay romance My Policeman, both films are heading for glitzy premieres on the fall festival circuit.
But as the train was ready to leave the station, the wheels were already about to fall off, a whirlwind of negativity surrounding both films and both performances. To date, reports of on-set (and premiere) toxicity of Don’t Worry Darling have been overshadowed by reviews of equal toxicity as the film trickled through the canals of Venice with a rather disturbing response. The majority of critics slapped a huge question mark over Styles’ acting ability, a role too narrow and limiting to tell us all that was met with an anticlimactic sea of shrugs.
Though that now sounds delightful compared to what Styles might receive for his follow-up, a polished, anonymous melodrama that should provide the confirmation many have been looking for. Just weeks after his failed comments about gay sex were rightly slammed, it looks like his performance will be too, a twist just as lukewarm as his soundbites. The film, based on Bethan Roberts’ novel, isn’t exactly a wash, but it’s not really much, a disappointingly dull and stridently simple love triangle saga overloaded with peeking looks and tearful bite. while underpowered by pristine lead performance. If the wheels came off before the festivals, consider the train completely crashed now.
It’s Brighton in the 1950s and Styles plays our policeman Tom, who begins an icy-paced relationship with Marion (The Crown breakout Emma Corrin), a local teacher who begins to worry that things are a bit one-sided. Tom introduces Marion to Patrick (David Dawson), a museum curator who becomes close friends with the two of them, with the three sharing a rare and 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 an invalid Patrick (Rupert Everett), much to Tom’s chagrin, with scenes from the two time periods alternating.
The styles may look like the handsome movie star he’s pushed aggressively with his sleek matinee idol hair still in place, but he’s all built and half-hearted, a performer as unsure of his abilities as we are. There’s a crucial dissonance between the confidence he exudes on stage and the awkwardness we see on screen, a star fading before our eyes, as uncomfortable for us as it seems for him. There is too much visible treat to his acting, the connections of what he does or tries to do, always on display, with a messy, uneven accent requiring an extra level of thought with every line of dialogue, making the character’s many instinctive moments slow and stilted. The words are over-spoken with a kind of stage school affect that clashes with what is meant to be an earthy, beer-drinking take on hyper-masculinity.
Defenders might argue that Styles’ second guess is actually perfect for a character trying to hide his sexuality, but that would be too generous a read because even in his most intimate and private sexual moments, he remains too hesitant. Navigating the world as a queer person, especially at a time when it was still punishable by law, requires too much complexity for someone still testing their sea legs, it’s essentially two roles at once where they have hard to play one. He drowns in the big bath and that makes the film flow around him.
Not that a more skilled and experienced actor could do much more with something that’s painted in such boring strokes. The characters are based less on real people and more on romantic drama types, devoid of idiosyncrasies and texture, more familiar to people who have seen others be in a relationship in film than to people who have been in a relationship. themselves. Homosexuality does little to differentiate the triangle from so many others we’ve seen and what’s frustrating to those with even a cursory knowledge of gay cinema is that so many films before it have carefully navigated equally tricky territory with ease and insight, from Dearden’s Basil Victim and William Wyler’s 1961 adaptation of The Children’s Hour, James Ivory’s Maurice from 1987 and, most recently, Terence’s devastating Benediction Davies. The stinging tragedy of being gay at the wrong time in history is something that will always prove ripe for emotional and painful drama, but director Michael Grandage struggles to shoot our hearts out, a soft target easily missed.
Its directing insists that we find meaning or emotional resonance in the small details of everyday life, but Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner’s superficial script rarely gives us enough reason to do so. It’s a shell of prestige for a movie that mostly plays like a soap opera heavyweight, a misguided hope that we might be sucked into thinking it all has more substance if presented in a sleeker package. Corrin and Dawson are easily more efficient than Styles but still a bit too mannered to break through and so it’s up to the older iterations to do the heavy lifting and while Everett is stuck in a thankless role that basically forces him to dribbling and moaning, in short bursts that are too fleeting, McKee and Roache manage to make us believe in a difficult dynamic against all odds. Exploring the festering consequences of a marriage built on this specific type of lie is far more dramatically interesting than the blandness of the above and a better movie might have tipped the scales in their favor. Their scenes stop, but the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as busy as it should be.