In case you've been in a bunker for the past year, Harry Styles has a small role in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. (Read our full, five-star review here.) It's small, but it's significant, in a film which is a genuine ensemble piece – there is no lead in this film.
Styles plays a young soldier stranded on the beach at Dunkirk during the Second World War who, along with Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard, try various means of escape and face disaster after disaster. They're shot at, capsized and nearly set on fire. Styles is good, but he's not even the lead character in his own section.
And that's a brilliant decision.
For Nolan, including Styles in his wartime epic might well have been stunt casting. His presence guarantees an audience that the film probably wouldn't otherwise appeal to. But, for Styles, what this definitely ISN'T is a popstar movie vehicle.
Styles had to audition for Nolan. He spent a decent proportion of his screen time filthy dirty and stuck in the water, under water, or trapped below decks of a boat which is rapidly filling with water. This is not a vanity project, people.
Don't be under any illusion that this is because Styles is in someway not good enough to get a bigger role in a film. Harry Styles is a straight-up megastar. If he wanted to be the lead in a movie he could. If he wanted to play a superhero who saves the planet, or a humanitarian who takes in hundreds of kittens or, we dunno... actual God... he could get a blank cheque signed in a second.
Thank goodness then, he (and his agent) are a whole lot smarter than that.
Choosing a Nolan movie was a very wise decision – Nolan is a mark of quality, with every single one of his films worth four stars or above. Nolan is not known for compromise, or frivolity. Nolan casts the best acting talent.
Indeed, that's what he's done here. In this role Harry Styles gets to act opposite (albeit briefly) Mark Rylance, who is widely agreed to be – at the very least – the greatest stage-acting talent of his generation. Harry also shares credits with Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, James D'Arcy and Kenneth freakin' Branagh. That's some serious co-star power right there.
It's one thing to have critics joyfully proclaiming "Harry Styles can act!" and another entirely when it's Nolan, Branagh and Rylance giving him the thumbs up.
Taking a supporting role was absolutely the right thing to do. For a start, not everyone who wants to act can act. But also, playing a small role minimises the risk of backlash from people who just aren't fans. Sure he's in it, but he's not going to annoy anyone even if he's no good. (Though he is good.)
Plenty of pop stars who decide they want to be in the movies nab lead roles in star vehicles and vanity projects, and frequently it's a terrible idea. Think Britney Spears in Crossroads, Mariah Carey in Glitter or Christina Aguilera in Burlesque. (Note how much more acclaim Mariah got for her small, unglamorous role in Precious.)
Even the star vehicles that do sort of work – and that's basically the ones which revolve around music – are often one-offs. Think Eminem in 8 Mile and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, where they were both essentially playing versions of themselves. Bowie made it work in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and later Labyrinth, but these were still essentially extensions of Bowie's brand. No-one ever really thought of him as an actor (rather than a musician who did a couple of movies). His most un-Bowie-ish role was probably as Tesla in The Prestige – tellingly, another Nolan movie.
Cher has had a very successful film career, even winning an Oscar, but she was already a very well known TV performer before she moved on to the big screen.
Mind you, taking a supporting role isn't enough to spell success if you pick the wrong film. Rihanna did herself no favours by appearing in Battleship, and following that up with Valerian won't help. We're not expecting to see Rita Ora at the Oscars any time soon for her part in the Fifty Shades movies. Lenny Kravitz has fared better with Precious (there it is again – small part in quality movie) and then The Hunger Games films (small part in quality movie).
One anomaly is Madonna, who started off strong in Desperately Seeking Susan, almost messed it up with Shanghai Surprise, and later Body of Evidence, clawed it back very successfully with Evita and then put the tin lid on it with Swept Away. But who knows, she might be back, because she's Madonna and she can do what she likes.
And then of course there's Elvis, who made a whole series of extremely successful movies where he was the star. However, although he had dreams of being a proper serious dramatic actor, his dramatic stuff was never as commercially successful as the musical vehicles where he played an entertainer. He was contracted, the studio ignored his wishes, he grew increasingly fed up with the quality of the movies and eventually quit movies altogether.
Harry Styles has avoided all these pitfalls with panache.
At the premiere for Dunkirk, Styles teased that he might retire from acting, saying "I really enjoyed this. I've peaked too soon! There's nowhere to go." While we can see the appeal of making a single, brilliant, five-star movie and then jacking it in, if Styles does decide to carry on with a movie career he's made the best possible choices and is in the best possible place.
And that's what makes him beautiful.
Dunkirk opens in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 21.
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