Now is the season of Harry Styles, movie star. Last month, under a cloud of gossip as far-reaching as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the feminist psycho-thriller “Don’t Worry Darling” came out in theatres, featuring Styles onscreen as a suave mid-century husband and offscreen as the pop star who beguiled the film’s director, Olivia Wilde. (The latest chapter in this never-ending soap opera involves Wilde making her paramour a very special salad dressing, possibly cribbed from Nora Ephron’s novel “Heartburn.”) This week, Styles appears in the second installment of his one-two cinematic punch, the gay period drama “My Policeman,” directed by the British theatre veteran Michael Grandage, with whom Styles seems to have had no backstage entanglements, romantic or salad-related.
HARRY STYLES CROP TOP
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For a twenty-eight-year-old pop idol who ranks among the world’s biggest male heartthrobs, this cannonball into film acting is an event—one that was heralded by appearances as Rolling Stone’s “first-ever global cover star” and at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, where frenzy followed him wherever he roamed. On paper, Styles’s foray into the movies is a big deal for Hollywood, which is always on the prowl for bankable leading men but rarely handed one with preëxisting superstardom. But it also carries the risk of a belly flop. Can this guy even act? Now that the results are in, the question has received mixed to negative answers. But ancillary to that question is a possibly more relevant one: Is Harry Styles a plausible movie star? It’s a job requiring less facility for transformation than sheer magnetism—something an international pop star presumably has at his fingertips.
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Styles, commendably, has gone more the Cher route in his choice of roles so far. In 2017, he made his feature début, as a soldier in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” placing him in a vast ensemble and in a fight for survival that left little room to coast on charm. Notwithstanding a cameo in Marvel’s “Eternals,” as some sort of intergalactic prince, he seems intent on playing regular blokes, albeit ones with perfect hair and puppy-dog eyes. Neither “Don’t Worry Darling” nor “My Policeman” is a rock-star vehicle, and you can sense his desire to challenge and prove himself. In “Don’t Worry Darling,” for which Styles was a last-minute substitute for Shia LaBeouf—a situation that has received no press attention whatsoever—he plays what appears to be a doting spouse in a nineteen-fifties suburb. Without spoiling the big twist, let’s just say that his character, Jack, isn’t any of those things. Much of Styles’s job involves looking snappy in vintage suits and vintage cars—all part of the nostalgic illusion that drives the plot—and, in one inexplicable scene, tap dancing like a marionette. The character would make more sense if Styles had any hint of menace or brutishness (which LaBeouf has in excess), qualities that instead fall to Chris Pine, as a kind of men’s-rights cult leader. Pine and Florence Pugh, as Jack’s wife, dominate the movie, whereas Styles tends to recede. The mode in which he looks most comfortable is pulsing sexual desire; Jack’s penchant for cunnilingus, though hard to square with his chauvinist backstory, is played with conviction.
Sexual yearning is also at the heart of “My Policeman,” in which Styles plays Tom, a cop in nineteen-fifties Brighton who has a winsome romance with a naïve schoolteacher named Marion (Emma Corrin). Once they marry, Marion realizes that Tom has a big secret: he has been having a torrid, illegal affair with their friend Patrick (David Dawson), a curator. As their pretty lives shatter, we see the same three characters in rueful middle age, reunited in a drab beach house. This gives Styles’s scenes the air of lush recollected youth. In his uniform—and, eventually, out of it—he has a languid, laconic sexiness, fitting his role as a working-class crush object. He’s less at home with anguish; his climactic scenes with Corrin are fine, but you can sense him revving up for his big speeches. It’s tempting to imagine the part in the sturdier frame of, say, Paul Mescal, who, in the tender new film “Aftersun,” conveys the pain and doom of a man in an emotional vise using little more than half glances and unspoken thoughts. Styles doesn’t have the chops to layer his character so economically. As in “Don’t Worry Darling,” he’s most convincing when his desire finally lets loose—he kisses Patrick like a man starved for air.
Of course, the fact that Styles is doing gay sex scenes at all is inextricably bound with his pop image. Since his One Direction days, his fans have imagined a queer double life for him—his relationship with his bandmate Louis Tomlinson has inspired reams of gay fan fiction. Styles’s androgynous outfits and refusal to publicly define his sexuality have done little to quell the speculation, and instead have been criticized as queer-baiting, so you could see “My Policeman” as little more than a juicy piece of bait. On the other hand, his real-life sexual ambiguity serves as useful shorthand in “My Policeman”: we can imagine how Tom, trapped in a period of repressive gender norms, might have thrived in the more permissive era that gave us Styles in a sequinned jumpsuit.
Both of Styles’s current roles interrogate a retro style of masculinity that—surprise, surprise—isn’t as swoon-worthy as advertised. In that sense, Styles is the man for the job, because he embodies the throwback cool of the classic pinup boy and the something-for-everyone ambiguity of the twenty-first-century sex symbol. The problem is that, for all his natural charisma, he hasn’t grabbed the screen in the way that a leading man needs to do. Instead of revealing the swagger of Sinatra or the self-torment of Marlon Brando or the wiliness of Jack Nicholson or the smarm of Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s subdued himself while more confident performers, such as Corrin and Pugh, snatch the spotlight. Maybe he doesn’t know what he wants to say with his acting—his pronouncement, at a Venice Film Festival press conference, that “Don’t Worry Darling” “feels like a movie,” doesn’t suggest that we’ll find out from his own mouth—but his choices have been interesting enough that we shouldn’t write him off yet. I’m not sold on Styles as a movie star, but I’m curious what might happen if he ever manages to bottle his undeniable star power and unleash it in front of a camera. ♦