Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk features an all-star British cast: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy… and the former One Direction member Harry Styles, whose acting experience amounts to a terrible cameo in the Nickelodeon kids’ show iCarly. But if you think casting Styles sounds like a disaster, you’re wrong. His turn comes during a period of self-reinvention. Earlier this year, he released a 1970s-influenced album that would prick the ears of the most boy-band-sceptic dad rocker. This film, pitched at an older, masculine audience, could be part of the same game plan.
Over the last couple of decades, it feels like we’ve had more and more musicians-turned-actors: Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith. But the concept of a pop pin-up at their peak swaggering into the movies thanks to their sheer charisma seems to belong to another time: Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. But this is what it feels like to watch Harry Styles in Dunkirk.
In the action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, there’s not a whole lot for Styles to mess up – I assume the casting directors scoured CVs for skills such as “sharing dark looks” and “sweating profusely”. But he’s good. He plays Alex, a difficult British soldier trying desperately to survive long enough to make it on to a boat back home. His ad-libbed swearing works; you buy his aggressive brand of fear and, yes, he looks amazing wet. In a scene of intense peril, he even says the words “sauerkraut sauce” in a way that doesn’t make you snort with laughter.
Who are the Hollywood heart-throbs of the past decade? Zac Efron? Robert Pattinson? Liam Hemsworth? All handsome and adored, but in a slightly anaemic way. In 20 years, will teens be posting pictures captioned, “Wow. Young Zefron”? What’s the modern equivalent of a shirtless Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise, or Leo in Titanic? Could it possibly be Harry Styles?
[See also: Harry Styles’ new album is a summery, Eighties-infused poolside record]
This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder