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My Policeman Review: Tender But Hollow

EDITORS' RATING: 4/10
Pros
  • Gorgeous period setting
  • Promising first act
Cons
  • Weak leading performances
  • Lack of chemistry

The longing of a pop star for a legitimate film career is just about as old as cinema itself. Musical ability and acting would seem to be transferable skills, to some extent — they're both about performance, after all. So it's only natural that filmmakers would attempt to harness the natural charisma and built-in appeal of a popular singer. But the indefinable screen presence of a leading man isn't something you can just stumble your way into, as we see in the muddled, disappointingly uneven production of "My Policeman," led by former One Direction star Harry Styles in one of two starring roles of 2022. The star-crossed story has a lot of potential, but it's let down by merely passable performances and a frustrating lack of chemistry between the three leads.

Marion (Emma Corrin), a young, reserved schoolteacher in 1950s Brighton, can't believe her luck when the handsome policeman Tom (Styles) begins to notice her. They begin a shy courtship and grow more attached to one another, but from the very start of their relationship, there's a third wheel in the shape of Patrick (David Dawson), a cultured museum curator who can't seem to tear himself away from the pair. At first, it seems as though he's well-matched with Marion, with their common interest in art and literature, but it quickly becomes clear that there's a much deeper connection between Tom and Patrick than anyone is willing to admit. The two have a forbidden love affair, one that was illegal at the time, and would threaten to ruin both their lives if discovered.

Tepid romance

As a gay romance, "My Policeman" has a shocking lack of chemistry. The sex scenes between both pairs of lovers are remarkably self-conscious, more a purposeful positioning of bodies than anything that feels organic. Tom and Patrick have tenderness with one another, but it isn't particularly romantic. Part of this is undoubtedly a fault of both the script and the direction, but it's also difficult to ignore the elephant in the room, which is the fact that Harry Styles isn't quite up to the task. He's not terrible, but he's obviously out of his depth. He has demonstrated his screen presence in films like "Dunkirk," but a supporting performance in a sprawling ensemble epic is quite a different thing from a leading role in an intimate character drama, and his inexperience is laid bare in "My Policeman" — with the main cast of just three actors, he has nowhere to hide.

If any one of the other characters was exemplary, it might have rescued the film. But they're all just fine. Unfortunately, the more seasoned members of the cast, Emma Corrin and David Dawson, are hamstrung by a subpar script. Corrin's Marion is underwritten to the point that she eventually begins to disappear into the wallpaper. The focus is primarily on the relationship between Tom and Patrick for obvious reasons, but it's difficult to feel any connection between Marion and Tom, either in the 1950s or with their modern-day counterparts that construct the film's framing narrative. And because there's not much of anything there, and all the older versions of the characters seem like demoralized shells of people who haven't experienced a moment of joy in 30 years, "My Policeman" comes across as less of a beautiful tragedy and more a mundane, tedious bummer.

A redemptive moment

There's one really powerful scene where Tom sees the nurse who has been hired to take care of Patrick out at the grocery store with his boyfriend. The two are casually shopping together with nothing to hide, their relationship out in the open, and the unfairness of it is so overwhelming that it moves Tom to tears. It feels genuine; for one brief moment, we could crack through the numbness that all of the characters seem to have, and see them for who they truly are. But they've all suppressed so much that they're more like robots just going through the motions than actual flesh-and-blood humans.

Despite all of this, "My Policeman" isn't a total disaster of a viewing experience. The lush settings of Brighton in the 1950s are gorgeous, and the main characters are each likable enough. But it frustrates in its inability to rise above mediocrity, push through the muddled narrative, and create a fresh story about the gay experience that has something worthwhile to say. It leans too heavily on queer persecution, and without a new perspective seems to serve as little more than a rehash of films that we've seen dozens of times before. It's utterly uninterested in exploring anything nuanced about these relationships, instead opting to dwell in gay anguish and pain.

The starring trio does their best with the material they have, and there's a certain melancholy wistfulness to their interactions in the early part of the film, before the inevitable destruction of their relationships unfolds. But Harry Styles can't quite prove himself as a leading man in "My Policeman" — he's charming and likable, but not much else — and Emma Corrin and David Dawson have characters that are too underwritten to make up for it. The result is an underwhelming weepy of a period drama that isn't able to rouse the viewer's interest for more than a few moments at a time.

"My Policeman" hits limited theaters on Friday, October 21 before debuting on Amazon Prime Video on November 4.