Starring: Tom Hardy, Olivia Coleman, Ruth Wilson
Director: Stephen Knight
The only face we see in Locke belongs to Ben Hardy’s titular character. It’s a mature, bearded face – patriarchal almost – tired but resolute, attached to a powerful shoulders and a big chest, and the lilting Welsh voice that emanates from it makes you think of a kindly preacher.
The site engineer on a mammoth building project, Ivan Locke has abandoned his work on the eve of an all-important, hugely expensive concrete pour in order to drive from Birmingham to London, to be at the side of a woman he scarcely knows (Olivia Coleman) – a fragile, lonely spinster with whom he had a one-night stand, and who is now giving birth to his baby. He’s doing it because he thinks it is right, because it’s what a man ought to do. The trouble is, when he talks like that, his co-workers and wife think he’s nuts – “Is this a joke?” his boss asks, “Are you wearing a fucking red nose?”. This has to be a sign of a breakdown or mid-life crisis – no one bothers with this “man’s gotta do” stuff any more. And at least at the beginning, you tend to think they have a point.
But then you watch him and start to wonder. Apart from a few unobtrusive elisions, the film takes place in real time and consists entirely of him driving, driving and fielding the angry and worried calls that pursue him like Furies down the M6. Trying to calm the expectant mother when there are complications with the birth, trying to placate his wife (Ruth Wilson), trying to talk a stressed, half-drunk underling through next day’s pour and deal with some last minute obstacles. The drama and occasional comedy of the film come from his efforts to handle these crises, while trapped in a car, by himself, with just a sense of his own unravelling life for company and with calls stacking up to give him yet more bad news.
But what makes Locke, in its quiet way, so provocative is its celebration of old-fashioned notions of manly virtue. Ivan’s burly, patriarchal demeanour is an anachronism, but the film suggests that it shouldn’t be, and that the world would be a better place if men expected more of themselves. Where it runs into trouble is in the way it contrasts male resoluteness and can-do with female helplessness and morbidity. While the men in Locke eventually dig deep and pull together in a crisis, the women spiral into hysterics and destructive tantrums. Ivan’s wife is spiteful and petty, cruelly casting doubt on his paternity – “If she fucked you, she fucks everybody” – and refusing to give him the telephone number of a town councillor he urgently needs to get in touch with. As for the woman who’s having the baby, there is a strong suspicion she’s only doing it to draw attention to herself and throw his life into disarray. When we learn that the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, it’s hard not to judge her for that too, as though her body is holding onto her trump card with a merciless grip. It’s worth noting that the (off-screen) actresses play these parts with a relish and conviction that makes them totally believable, but all the same it all seems likely to ruffle the feathers of female viewers.
Although Locke is a film that could only be made with modern technology, it feels in many ways like a throwback to an earlier era of British drama when theatre, film and TV were more closely intertwined (an era which its fifty-something writer/director Stephen Knight is the perfect age to remember with nostalgia). Ivan recalls the harried, tormented male leads of John Osborne’s plays – there’s even a hint of Ibsen’s Master Builder – and his monologues have a weight and density that seem made for the stage. Watching Locke is like watching a theatre piece playing out in the confines of a BMW, with you riding shotgun. At its centre is a performance from Tom Hardy which confirms he can simply do anything. When the manly mask slips, when Ivan’s emotions get the better of him and his face lights up into a smile or dissolves into tears, it’s momentous, revelatory, like the ground rocking beneath your feet. Together, Hardy and Knight have created a character study that is intimate, occasionally harrowing and in the end deeply uplifting – at least for a male audience. (You also learn a lot about laying concrete, which is a plus.)
The dis comes with a 9-minute featurette and an audio commentary with Stephen Knight which reveal some astonishing things. To give the feel of a live piece, they shot the whole film in sequence every night from beginning to end – twice – ending up with about 30 hours of footage after an exhausting week’s shoot. (The BMW was mounted on a low-loader – it’s a relief to learn that Hardy wasn’t doing his own driving.) Meanwhile, the other actors were gathered in the conference room of a nearby hotel, ready to phone in live when cued by the director. It’s an out of the box approach which pays off in a film which has the immediacy and pulse of real life.