However competent if miscast the British pop star turned novice actor was in “Darling,” the 28-year-old is clearly out of his depth in this drab awards vehicle. Playing Tom, a closeted gay officer wrestling with his sexuality in 1950s England, Styles stumbles through stilted line readings and strained fits of rage while conveying little of the character’s internalized anguish.
Adapted by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, with plodding predictability, from Bethan Roberts’s 2012 novel, “My Policeman” might have been salvaged by someone with the kind of transcendent screen presence that occasionally lifts a stodgy period piece from the depths of convention. Instead, Styles’s flat performance delivers the fatal blow to the film’s uninspired depiction of mid-century homophobia, forbidden love and long-simmering resentment.
That’s a shame for David Dawson, who plays Tom’s secret lover, Patrick, with a blend of yearning and pain that befits a man concealing his true self at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. A museum curator and artist with an affinity for opera, Patrick stands in contrast to the character of Tom, a simple-minded moralist torn between his sexual impulses and his regressive social views. To give Styles the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his wooden delivery is meant to heighten the difference between the two characters. Intentional or not, the implication is unconvincing.
Emma Corrin, sensational as Diana Spencer on Season 4 of “The Crown,” fills the thankless role of Marion, Tom’s doe-eyed fiancee who realizes too late that she — not Patrick — is the third wheel in that trio of friends. In a contrived, 1990s-set framing device, an older Marion (Gina McKee) and an older Tom (Linus Roache) are shown to be still married when her decision to take in Patrick (Rupert Everett) — using a wheelchair and mostly deprived of his voice by a stroke — reopens old wounds.
“All love stories are tragic, aren’t they?” the younger Patrick observes, making explicit the film’s message. Sure enough, the doomed romance unfolds as expected while “My Policeman” clumsily cuts between the 1950s and the 1990s, where we’re shown connective shots of Marion reading Patrick’s diary or Tom staring longingly into the sea. Although the time jump hints at more profound notions — including the bittersweet nature of social change that arrives too late — the omission of the intervening decades leaves a gaping hole. In an equally egregious oversight, “My Policeman” barely acknowledges the fact that Tom, as an officer of the law, has been tasked with enforcing the same barbaric law that his love of Patrick violates.
It doesn’t help that director Michael Grandage, a stage veteran helming only his second film after 2016’s “Genius,” lacks an audacious enough vision to distract from the half-baked characters. Visually, he paints a stark contrast between the gray, gusty aesthetic of the 1990s storyline and the sunnier 1950s plot. (Shots of the older Tom taking walks along the concrete sea wall, waves crashing, are particularly striking.) Leaning on Steven Price’s sumptuous score, Grandage crafts Tom and Patrick’s love scenes with tasteful tenderness. Yet his disciplined direction exposes the script’s reliance on love-triangle archetypes and well-worn tropes of the “queer romance.”
Once the 1950s storyline reaches its conclusion, “My Policeman” tries to engineer tear-jerking catharsis among the older versions of these characters. The question at hand — what are the emotional consequences of a decades-long relationship built on a lie? — is a compelling one. But with a decades-long gap missing from the narrative, the audience is left to fill in the blanks.
Look past the miscasting. “My Policeman’s” incongruent storytelling is its biggest crime.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual material. 113 minutes.