To be fair to Harry Styles, he’s had a lot on his plate recently. With his newest film outing, My Policeman, combined with the media storm surrounding his turn in Don’t Worry Darling, it’s hard to remember the last time a pair of performances were approached with such scrutiny. There’s a risk that this sort of thing is going to overshadow the rest of My Policeman, which is a shame, so we’ll get all the Styles-bashing out of the way quickly.
He’s fine. Uneven, certainly, but fine. Some of his line-reading can sound a little forced, but as a physical performer a lot of what he does in My Policeman is quite impressive. When he needs to pull off a big emotional moment, too, he delivers, swapping between indignant anger and emotional vulnerability remarkably well. More than anything it feels like the performance of a promising actor taking on leading roles too soon, without the years of craft to fall back on. So he’s not an Olivier-ian genius, but he’s not a complete charisma vacuum either. And that’s the last I’ll say on the matter.
So, the film then. My Policeman stars Emma Corrin and David Dawson opposite a henceforth unnamed pop star as a closeted police officer in 1950s Brighton. PC Tom Burgess is very much a man of his time. A bit of a misogynist with a bit of a temper, he falls into an illegal relationship with museum curator Patrick (Dawson) and marries schoolteacher Marion (Corrin) to cover it up.
All this is told as an extended flashback, as an older Marion (Gina McKee) uncovers Patrick’s diaries after accepting him into her and her husband’s home following a stroke. It’s a well-worn framing device, and unfortunately it doesn’t really work here. The nineties-set segments don’t add much to the period story, and the massive 40-year time jump does make you wonder what the universally miserable characters have been doing in the intervening years.
As for the main bulk of the tale, director Michael Grandage has captured the fifties setting well, and the film does a good job of capturing the oppressive homosexuality laws in place at the time. The much-discussed sex scenes are also surprisingly tender, and provide a great contrast with the participants’ repressed lives in the outside world.
But it’s the outside world where it all falls apart. While the story in the abstract is an interesting one, in practice it can’t help but feel a little bit lifeless. The narrative is bizarrely structured, hopping back and forth in time (both within the flashback and without) and as a result it’s difficult to build much of a connection with any of the characters in either timeline.
Eventually, My Policeman stumbles to a close, and it’s hard not to see it as a waste of potential. The story of Britain before the Sexual Offences Act is underexplored in general, and Grandage’s picture makes a valiant attempt at bringing the period to life. But a muddled script and bizarre framing have made a film that never quite seems comfortable in its own skin. Occasional glimpses of the film it could be mean it’s not without merit, but beyond its star power there’s little here that’s not been seen before.
My Policeman screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 16, and arrives in UK cinemas October 21.