Somewhere in the middle of the disastrous, gossip-riddled publicity campaign for Olivia Wilde’s film Don’t Worry Darling, a short clip was released of a scene between Harry Styles and Florence Pugh, in tandem with a splashy profile of Styles in Rolling Stone magazine. But the extensive profile and the eye-catching cover photography were largely overlooked amid the internet referendum over the clip, which prompted discussions about the quality of the 28-year-old pop star’s acting. Film Twitter mocked him mercilessly. His army of stans rallied to his defense. As you can imagine, that went well.
Harry Styles is hardly the first singer — or athlete, or wrestler, or whatever — to ride his popularity into film acting, then get some tough notices. But the combination of his extreme fame, his starring role in the film, and his starring role in its backstage drama (he began dating Wilde on set, supposedly triggering a falling-out between Wilde and Pugh) piled on the pressure and supercharged public interest. Suddenly, it seemed like a matter of international importance: Can Harry Styles act?
Now we get to enjoy another round of this debate with the release of the queer drama My Policeman, which debuted in American theaters on Oct. 21, and is coming to Amazon Prime Video on Nov. 4. Very much unlike Don’t Worry Darling, this is a modest and sober film, not to mention a rather dreary one. If Styles weren’t in it, it wouldn’t merit a second look. But he is, so My Policeman has been drawn into the maelstrom of Styles’ fame, and the film world’s huffy resistance to it.
While both films lean on the considerable appeal of looking at Harry Styles dressed in sharp 1950s tailoring, My Policeman is a better showcase for his talents. Styles plays Tom, a police officer in Brighton on the south coast of England in the 1950s, when homosexuality was still illegal in the United Kingdom. He courts teacher Marion (Emma Corrin) and the pair pal around with museum curator Patrick (David Dawson). Through a framing device set in the 1990s, with the three characters played by older actors, and through a shift in time and perspective at the halfway point, the film coyly unspools Tom’s conflicted relationship with Patrick and with his own sexuality, and the sad denouement of this little love triangle.
It says a lot about My Policeman’s cautious sexual politics that even the film’s nominally more contemporary and enlightened frame reaches back to the ’90s. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and director Michael Grandage (Genius), working from a novel by Bethan Roberts, just seem to want to wallow in the repression of the past, complete with tasteful melancholy. This is stock-in-trade for a certain kind of prestige British production, the best example being Merchant-Ivory’s heartbreaking The Remains of the Day. My Policeman follows the template studiously. It may go down well with the older matinee-screening crowd, although it’s hard to imagine Harry Styles’ Gen Z fanbase connecting with anything other than the decorous sex scenes.
As the young Tom, Styles is handsome, charming, and awkward in a way that works. The camera adores him and his fantastic, swirling quiff of hair. He has a screen magnetism that goes beyond his good looks, too: There’s something very watchable and readable about him, an endearing openness and innocence without which Tom’s closeted denial, and the way he uses Marion, might come across as frosty or cynical. It’s a big part, with moments of emotional intensity, but Tom’s confusion and repression are always visible, which suits Styles well.
As Jack in Don’t Worry Darling, the twists and turns of the script require Styles to make sense of his character’s hidden layers, multiple personae, and dark impulses. These chameleonic shifts are beyond him, which left him at sea in that movie. As an actor, he’s likely to find more suitable expression in roles where his heart is permanently on his sleeve.
That doesn’t mean he’s bad at acting. In fact, used with care, his disarming lack of depth can be a great asset. Just look at his scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The 2017 film was Styles’ first acting gig, but though his part is small, he has to deliver some of the movie’s biggest emotional beats: furiously trying to eject a silent soldier from a sinking boat after realizing he might not be English, and cowering in shame from the hostile reception he expects Britain’s defeated forces to meet on their return home. In the first of these scenes, his naked desperation is frightening; in the second, it’s pitiful. Both times, the audience is right there with him.
But Styles lacks one very important part of an actor’s skillset, which wasn’t that evident in Dunkirk, but is painfully exposed in his two recent films. He’s just not very good at speaking.
It’s not that he’s unclear or hard to comprehend. Quite the opposite. He has a curiously deliberate, childlike cadence, where every syllable seems to carry the same weight. He sounds for all the world like a 12-year-old reading aloud in class. His speech pattern is compounded by his northwestern English accent (he grew up in Cheshire, south of Manchester), with its drawn-out vowel sounds. It’s a clumsy way of speaking, and it leads to some unintentionally funny line readings — often at the worst possible moments, when he’s working hardest emotionally. In a crucial scene in My Policeman, he rounds on Marion, who is getting to the truth of his relationship with Patrick, and shouts, “You’ve got a dirty mind!” It somehow comes out petulant and camp, and it drew a big, derisive laugh from the audience in the screening I attended.
This could be the real reason viewers of the Don’t Worry Darling clip struggled to understand what accent he was going for, when it’s just his natural accent. (Although it is funny that the film has to construct a convoluted in-universe reason for him to have it.) No speech seems to sound entirely natural coming out of Styles’ mouth. It’s as if he’s learning to talk from first principles. Every line sounds like a line.
This might seem like a fatal flaw for an actor, but verbal cadence is a skill that can be taught far more easily than holding the camera’s gaze or the audience’s sympathy. Styles can do both those things better than many other people working in the field. With work — and through collaborations with directors who can get him to relax and be himself, as Nolan clearly did — he could be a movie star yet.
Marvel Studios is certainly hoping so. Eternals’ mid-credit scene revealed Styles’ casting as Eros, aka Starfox, Thanos’ carefree playboy brother. His garbled, leaden delivery of his few lines, and the dreadful American accent he employs for them, make Starfox’s inclusion in future MCU films seem like a liability. But before he opens his mouth — as he saunters into the frame with a wry half-smile and a glint in his eye — there’s a momentary blast of the irresistibly insouciant star power that he has on stage, but that none of his other, generally serious film roles to date has let him show. If he could just untie his tongue, he could be delightful.