Musician and still budding actor Harry Styles seems to have a way of never letting one forget he’s around. That might be more so still on the radio than on a theater marquee, but that does not make him any less choosy with his projects. Just when the aura of his misogynist anti-hero in Don’t Worry Darling has all but faded, his immediate follow-up sees him tackling a character much closer to home. At least geographically speaking, if not also a distracting statement of his personal ambiguity. Would that mean his work in My Policeman poses a distraction from the rest of the film? Not necessarily. Does his efforts make for a worthwhile viewing experience? Supposedly yes, until one realizes how unvaried or disengaging this story grows into.
It feels as distant as the neighborhood it’s placed, covering two eras of time. The seaside town of Brighton is as far away from the magnetic pull of London as one could go in summer. Nothing but friendly vibes, and carefree thoughts for those careful enough to follow the rules. That’s the established tone in police officer Tom’s (Styles) budding relationship with teacher Marion (Emma Corrin). The two are very happy, and eventually marry. All as their mutual friend, museum curator Patrick (David Dawson) emerges within the shadows, making his own feelings known for Tom. Thus initiates a rather tragic love triangle, at a time when gay rights in Britain were not at all a thing. Marion can’t stand it, Patrick’s overzealous, and Tom is trapped in the middle, battling his own moral upstanding.
We fast forward forty years later, it’s the late 90s. Marion (Gina McKee) invites Patrick (Rupert Everett) over to her and Tom’s (Linus Roache) home while recovering from a stroke. The pair are still married, but not quite on full speaking terms. The events of that sordid affair and its public perception have rocked their lives, though they’d never admit it. Their defeatist attitudes only come further to light as Marion revisits those haunting memories. And the way we appear to cut away to the past, then back again doesn’t quite sustain that sense of spiteful regret. Same awkward throuple, two different films, the momentum of time slowing down at every occasion.
Director Michael Grandage (Genius) and screenwriter Ron Nyswander (Philadelphia) did have their work cut out for them, therefore, adapting Bethan Roberts’ novel for the screen. A tale like this, set in a turbulent point of world history, demands a chance to compel the viewer, capture signs of the times, and keep its characters engaged with both activity and humility. While events do occur between this trio, reflecting the working class discrimination of that era, they’re happening as if they’re background players to a larger, invisible problem. Hearts run wild on furious energy, envious and empathic, but very lost on who is most at fault – the coppers or the perpetrators, posing questions better answered in a classic heist. Both dramatic and sexual tension come off very static and apathetic. So too does the trio’s combined chemistry, its muddled disposition magnified by their restless older selves.
Nyswaner, despite his passionate efforts, simply cannot make the past connect with the present, or at least the novel’s version of the present. Neither era has any business mingling with each other, unless it’s by blunt force. It would’ve been more triumphant had there not been the desire to make up for lost time, and allow past tense to take the wheel. Even when insisted on playing nice, it further sours whatever profundity is attempted, icing any momentum with the elder trio. Everett perhaps does most of the heavy lifting there, outperforming both Roache and McKee. While in the more idyllic 1950s, Styles exudes some nascent charm to the big lead, while romance and intimacy remains an inherent challenge. An object of sensuality, sure, but he can’t own that for long with how skittish he presents himself with either of his peers. This lessens Dawson’s impact, trying to play the upper hand with verbal eloquence as Grandage amps up an array of fervent visual cues. It’s Corrin who ultimately steals the show, not so much emphasizing lawful neutrality as she is glorified scorn for wrongful infidelity.
And that might be one of the very few ideas Grandage applies to look past apparent 1950s attitudes. His mistake is not staying with that longer than what he deems necessary, falling back into stuffy aesthetics and stereotypes all too comfortably. Namely in Dawson’s performance, his body language more than exercising hesitancy when not exercising balanced aplomb. And with an overwhelming usage of old-school style. It fits Styles’ broad ambulation, at minimum, but less is still more. The same can be said for Ben Davis’s (Eternals) all-natural camera composition, and to Steven Price’s (The World’s End) score, both of whom I could appreciate for tethering Grandage’s vision firmly to eye level. Not so much for stirring up hackneyed emotional quandaries better left to their own devices.
Patrick may be the one posing utmost fondness for his copper fling, but those in the audience who aren’t fans of Styles will have no clear idea of where to lay their affection. Such is My Policeman’s fate, toying around with strong emotions in a time of unfair bigotry. Though never to where lofty aspirations neatly encapsulate trial, consequence, or reward. After enough time passes, Grandage can only play paint-by-numbers, struggling to nudge his actors in the right thematic direction. Despite a few welcome swipes with dramatic substance, it cannot last five minutes without buckling under its own misguidance. Not at all arresting, really. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
My Policeman opens in select theaters October 21 and streams on Prime Video November 4; rated R for sexual content; 113 minutes.