tiff 2022

Is Harry Styles a Good Actor? A Conversation

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/Prime Video

With the releases of Don’t Worry Darling (in theaters September 23) and My Policeman (in theaters October 21, streaming on Prime November 4) now imminent, one of the pressing questions of the fall is about to be answered: Is Harry Styles a good actor? The former boy bander and current pop godling has made some initial forays onto the big screen, in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 WWII spectacle Dunkirk and in the mid-credits stinger for Eternals (where he managed to speak in what felt like a half-dozen accents over maybe a minute). But this festival season is providing the one-time One Direction member with his first opportunities to play leading (or at least leading-ish) roles.

In Don’t Worry Darling, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Styles plays husband to Florence Pugh, the pair living in a seemingly idyllic 1950s California company town that conceals some ominous secrets. In My Policeman, which just played at the Toronto International Film Festival, Styles is back in the ’50s as a closeted Brighton cop who falls in love with another man (David Dawson), but courts and marries a woman (Emma Corrin) in order to shield himself in society. Having now each seen one of these movies, Vulture’s Nate Jones and Alison Willmore have convened to discuss how Styles fares in his award season debuts, and how much his public persona looms over, and maybe overshadows, the characters he’s playing.

Alison Wilmore: Nate, I must speak my truth: I do not think Harry Styles is very good in My Policeman. My Policeman is also not a very good movie, which doesn’t help matters, though it does have a picturesque setting on the southeast coast of England that includes some very painful-looking pebbly beaches. A dreary period drama that skips between the ’50s and the ’90s, with two separate sets of actors playing the participants in the primary love triangle, it does a very unconvincing job of creating a sense of continuity between who these characters are when they’re younger and who they end up becoming as older, but not necessarily wiser, retirees.

Styles plays the earlier version of the titular policeman, a beat cop named Tom Burgess who starts up an awkward courtship with a teacher named Marion Taylor (Emma Corrin). At first, the pair’s fumbling attempts at romance seem like they’re just a byproduct of inexperience or repression. But we soon learn that Tom actually struck up his relationship with Marion, who he eventually marries, to cover up the fact that he’s fallen for another man — Patrick Hazlewood (David Dawson), a museum curator who, unlike Tom, has made peace with the sexuality that makes him a criminal in the eyes of the law. Tom figures out a way to introduce Patrick to Marion as a friend, and soon she’s unknowingly third wheeling on dates with her own boyfriend.

Tom is a working-class hunk who’s very much a product of the era’s expectations of masculinity, and who because of that is not in touch with or comfortable expressing his emotions. Styles never fully inhabits or relaxes into the part, defaulting instead to being this beautiful blank. While fully believable as an object of desire for both Marion and Patrick, he’s a lot less convincing as a tormented, emotionally constipated character — not a total disaster, but doing very little to convey all the inner turmoil and the conflicted desire that Tom feels but can’t bring himself to acknowledge. Styles is also just an odd fit for the role, which is clearly meant to go to the midcentury Brighton equivalent of a stolid high-school quarterback. On the few occasions when he sparks to life, he projects an impish, knowing quality that’s appealing while not at all fitting with the character as written.

But of Styles’s two movies this year, My Policeman is by far the quieter one. Nate, how does he fare in Don’t Worry Darling, which, well, has had no trouble attracting all sorts of advance attention?

Nate Jones: Speaking of the accent. A few weeks back, a clip from Don’t Worry Darling went semi-viral on Twitter, with viewers seriously wondering which side of the Atlantic his character was supposed to be from. The movie is less helpful on this front than you would hope: The film begins with a party montage where everyone speaks in tossed-off snippets, and Styles’s first sustained stretch of dialogue occurs during a drunken joyride, leaving it unclear whether he’s playing an actual British guy or an American guy putting on a British accent for laughs.

Turns out it’s the former, which may either be a deliberate creative choice or a make-do decision for an actor who signed on at the last minute. But it works for the aesthetic world of the film, a Mad Men fantasy of jazz clubs, martini lunches, and impeccable menswear. As Jack, loving husband to Florence Pugh’s Alice, he evokes the upwardly mobile Northern lads who made good during the era of Swinging London. In his other job, Styles likes to play around with gender, and his bits of the film are most interesting when they get into the idea that mid-century masculinity is its own kind of drag.

Alas, I regret to inform you that there is also plenty that’s not that interesting about Styles’s performance in Don’t Worry Darling. The film takes place in an eerily self-contained community in the California desert — picture The Truman Show if it was set in Palm Springs — where all the men are employed by a mysterious corporation known as the Victory Project and all the women walk around like they’ve been lobotomized. If you’ve seen the trailer, or perhaps any other movie at all, you know that there’s an inevitable dark side. As Pugh’s Alice tries to determine the nefarious secret at the heart of the Project, Styles’s Jack is caught in the middle, torn between loyalty to his wife and loyalty to his bosses.

But you don’t get much of that tension in his performance. Styles comes off as a wet blanket throughout, and the film is so unwilling to make his character an outright villain that it eventually ports in Chris Pine’s guru to serve as a Big Bad. (That Pine turns out to have crackling chemistry with Pugh only puts Styles’s performance in a harsher light.) Shia LaBeouf has been accused of some terrible things, and whether he was fired or quit, I’m sure there was a good reason. But watching Don’t Worry Darling, I couldn’t help wondering how the film would have played with a male lead who was able to bring LaBeouf’s level of intensity to the part. Pugh is a performer who can really go there, and, no matter how charming he is as a celebrity, as an actor Styles simply can’t reach those same heights. She winds up screaming into a void.

Now, there are benefits to the recasting. LaBeouf is constitutionally incapable of being the sex object Styles is, and you could argue that the singer’s recessive performance affords Pugh more of the spotlight. (Wilde certainly did, in a slightly cringey Instagram post.) But that doesn’t make up for how unbalanced the film’s central relationship feels, which leaves its tale of domestic paranoia strangely uncompelling.

But now that we’ve both said our piece about Styles as an actor, let’s talk about how these films play with the idea of Harry Styles the celebrity. How does his part in My Policeman jibe with his star image?

Willmore: Well, playing a closeted gay man isn’t likely to do much in terms of quieting the ever-present discourse about whether Styles is engaged in a prolonged stint of queerbaiting. Of course, playing a gay character doesn’t say anything about the private life of an actor (though some argue it should, and that gay characters should be played by gay performers rather than, say, straight ones trawling for awards). But what’s interesting about My Policeman, at least with regard to Styles as a celebrity, is less the queerness in itself than how it feels like it’s part of a larger calculation intended to drive the remnants of a certain obsessive swath of his fanbase out of their gourds.

Back in the One Direction days, stans became convinced that Styles and his bandmate Louis Tomlinson were in a romantic relationship that their management company was forcing them to keep secret. For some, this was less a ship than a vast, fully unhinged, and still ongoing conspiracy theory that involved overanalyzing the pair’s every interaction for clues, as well as their tattoos, their music, their tour marketing, you name it. Their girlfriends have been declared beards, their babies (in Tomlinson’s case) fake, and anyone, including Styles’s current (?) flame, Wilde, who has been perceived as getting in the way of the pair’s one true love, has been on the receiving end of torrents of online abuse.

So the fact that Styles, in one of his earliest acting efforts, has opted to star in a movie in which he is in a secret relationship with a man and does feel forced by homophobia into a less-than-genuine marriage in order to succeed at his career? It does feel like it’s either an act of perverse genius or some incredibly targeted trolling. It’s hard to watch Styles and Dawson surreptitiously link hands at a recital while an oblivious Corrin sits alongside them and to not believe that, among a certain extremely online crowd, the movie is going to be taken as tantamount to a public declaration. That said, Don’t Worry Darling appears to be hetero as hell, from its subject matter to its epic cast-member dramas — how does Styles the star resonate with Styles’s character in that one?

Jones: It’s nearly impossible to talk about this subject without spoiling the film’s big reveal, but I’ll do my best. The secret at the heart of the Victory Project is the kind of thing that sounds ludicrous if you attempt to describe it to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, but the twist mostly worked for me. It’s nothing you won’t guess, but as a riff on a few toxic internet subcultures, it gives the film’s third act a specificity absent from the rest.

But there’s also something almost condescending about how this revelation plays out in regard to Styles’s character. You say his role in My Policeman turns Harry Styles fanfic into canon; his part in the first two-thirds of Don’t Worry Darling is essentially the Harry Styles star image made text. His Jack is the ardent suitor of “Adore You,” the generous lover of “Watermelon Sugar,” the elfin fashion plate of all those glossy spreads. But when the twist comes, it dawns on you that Wilde has cast Harry Styles as a [spoiler redacted] who wishes he was [spoiler redacted]. He didn’t write the script, obviously, but the film winds up with a whiff of the same self-regarding selflessness critics like Lindsay Zoladz have noticed in the lyrics to “Boyfriends” — Styles as a vision of the preternaturally empathic partner, to whom the average 21st-century male simply cannot compare.

Perhaps that’s unfair. The noise around Don’t Worry Darling has been so loud that I’m wary of adding to the pile-on. So I want to leave you with a final question: Does what you’ve seen so far make you optimistic about Styles’s future as a leading man?

Willmore: The alchemy that goes into transmuting a pop star’s charisma as a musical performer into something that serves them well as an actor is strange and unpredictable, and going off his roles so far, I would not say that alchemy is working for Styles. That said, I’d be curious to see what would happen if he stops trying to act and opts instead to just play himself, a tried-and-true technique that worked out okay for Elvis and plenty of other people who have star wattage without also having a natural ability to transform themselves into a character. But I also can’t pretend I’m all that invested in Styles figuring out how to make the movies work for him at this point. It’s okay to stick to music! Not everyone needs to EGOT! What about you?

Jones: I came into these movies more invested in Styles-the-actor than you. I thought he was legitimately good in Dunkirk! But that film only asked him to play a few notes instead of the whole symphony. So maybe that’s the answer — as with hunks like Jude Law, might Styles be better off in supporting roles? The difference between “failed leading man” and “successful character actor” is a very fine line.

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Is Harry Styles a Good Actor? A Conversation