I saw Harry Styles twice this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. The first time was on-screen in Michael Grandage’s My Policeman, a romantic drama named for Styles’s character, Tom, a closeted constable in 1950s Britain based on the real-life male lover of author E.M. Forster. The other was outside the film’s public premiere, where the singer-slash-actor inspired the second-biggest outdoor crowd of the weekend after Taylor Swift — a throng loud enough to be audible from space, or at least the top of the CN Tower.
TIFF’s desire to connect to a younger, poppier audience in their post-Covid comeback year is palpable, and it’s also fair enough, even if the terms of the outreach border on disingenuous; I will always treasure the festival press release breathlessly touting Swift as a “visual thinker” (although, to give credit where it’s due, All Too Well: The Short Film was probably the only title in the entire programme to screen on 35 mm). As for Styles, his sharing of an ensemble TIFF tribute acting prize (the first one ever) for My Policeman was a sneaky way to leverage an expedient celebration of celebrity against an ostensible celebration of craft; one wonders whether, if Don’t Worry Darling had been invited to Toronto instead, the same cover story would have held up.
If the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance represents a figurative form of sucking up, the literal blow job Styles receives in the centerpiece sequence of My Policeman is, if nothing else, a likely conversation piece for the fall movie season. The question of whether Styles has been deliberately queer-baiting his constituency has been already been asked and answered ad nauseam this fall, and his quote that Grandage’s film transcends the supposedly desultory gay cinematic tradition of “two guys going at it” already lives in a kind of himbo-ish infamy — an observation paved with what fans and detractors alike can probably agree are good intentions. In fact, everything about Styles’s participation in My Policeman, a decent portion of which is devoted to two guys going at it, is redolent (if not reeking) of good intentions, which is not usually a sign of a good movie — or, as our man might put it, a movie that, like, feels like a movie, a real, you know, go-to-the-theater-film movie.
In terms of dramatic architecture, My Policeman has been structured as a love triangle spanning two timelines, cutting between past and present in order to map the rules and consequences of attraction. Each of the three protagonists is sympathetic, in their way. Tom’s an unpretentious lad, who’s content, for the moment, to be a blunt instrument of the state, though he’s kinder than his colleagues. Patrick (David Dawson), the Forster stand-in, is a literary type wielding artistic sophistication as a weapon against his own loneliness. Marion (Emma Corrin) is a thoughtful, traditionally minded schoolteacher who exists platonically in Patrick’s intellectual thrall, but loves Tom for his sweet pliability: the same quality that attracts Patrick, against his better judgment.
Driven by what he believes is love rather than lust, Patrick seduces Tom, who’s willing to be seduced as long as it’s behind closed doors. Homosexuality is not only a crime, but apprehending “perverts” is part of his daily beat, and he’s determined (if ambivalent) about keeping up appearances. Marion, meanwhile, keeps bumping up against the limits of her own obliviousness, until, finally, she bypasses them. Decades later, she (Gina McKee) and Tom (Linus Roache) are retired and not-quite happily married. Patrick (Rupert Everett) appears to be in ruins, and Marion invites him to their home to convalesce. Tom refuses to speak to Patrick. Patrick doesn’t speak at all.
In order for a finicky, intricate movie like My Policeman two work, the two time frames have to each have their own visual or tonal flavor, and there should also be a real sense of connection between the actors playing the characters at either end of their lives. On the first count, Grandage, who is not a terribly adroit director, does ok. The flashbacks have the rich, burnished quality of a cherished memory, while the contemporary passages are effectively faded — the images are just right for a graying seaside town where everyday is like Sunday. The only actor pairing that really works, though, is the one between Dawson and Everett. It’s easy (and fun) to imagine the latter back in his dashing days actually playing Patrick, and his quiet, static, subtly physical work in the character’s older incarnation shows a lot of skill. But McKee’s older Marion is a beatific cipher weirdly at odds with Corinn’s furtive, edgy performance, and while Roache’s listlessness is arguably built into the script, he never quite evokes the vacant, appealingly open decency of Styles’s presence.
At this point, period pieces about tortured, secretive, and tragic gay relationships are their own prestige-picture subgenre, and My Policeman breaks no new ground in the field. If the sex scenes are explicit enough to potentially challenge the sort of aging theatrical audience that used to go see Merchant Ivory-style productions in the theater, they’re not quite enough to offset the overall drabness; whether or not Styles’s name on the poster will bring in kids is hard to say. But to give credit where it’s due, he does have the best moment in the movie. Asked by Patrick what he thinks of a J.M.W. Turner painting hanging in his art gallery, Tom, who refuses to put on airs (and wouldn’t know where to start if he did) gazes intently into the stormy canvas and seems embarrassed by his failure to perfectly articulate his feelings, even as he knows he has them. The sarcastic thing to say is that Styles is perfect for a character who doesn’t have control over his own intellectual instrument; the fairer observation may be that an actor who’s eager (recently to a fault) to express what he’s thinking has a found a way to empathetically imagine what it might to like to try to hold it all in.
Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.