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VENICE, Italy – Who knew the logistical challenges of pouring concrete could be so riveting? A lean, real-time account of a construction supervisor facing the loss of his home, marriage and job to honor a commitment and exorcise the sins of his father, Locke turns even mundane details into flavorful dramatic grist. Brit screenwriter Steven Knight’s second film as director could easily be a theater piece and yet it’s bracingly cinematic, powered by Tom Hardy’s controlled performance, which packs an emotional charge intensified by its restraint.
Knight’s feature debut, the uncustomary Jason Statham vehicle Redemption, was released in the U.S. early this summer. But the hard proof of his storytelling skills has been in his screenplays for two gritty London underbelly excursions, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. In Locke, he pares story down to its sparest essentials, weighing ethical questions of culpability and responsibility with searing concentration. No less impressive than the narrative mastery here, however, is the technical execution of this bold minimalist experiment.
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Shot entirely (aside from a quick opening) in the confined setting of a BMW during a nighttime journey on the motorway from Birmingham to London, the low-budget project was rehearsed and filmed in less than two weeks during a brief window of Hardy’s availability. The action was captured chronologically, much like a play performance, with a top-notch voice cast working from a nearby hotel as characters heard only via phone calls.
Summoning the spirit of Richard Burton, Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a soft-spoken Welshman with an unimpeachable record as a go-to guy in construction management. He’s similarly untarnished as a husband of 15 years and father to two soccer-fanatic sons. It’s with the necessary burden of accountability for an uncharacteristic transgression that he steps away from a construction site at the worst possible time.
In details that gradually emerge during tense calls with his boss (Ben Daniels) and crew chief (Andrew Scott), we learn that the largest concrete pour ever attempted in Europe outside a nuclear or military facility is scheduled early the following morning. The stability of the foundation for the massive skyscraper going up depends on the accuracy of the mix and the arrival of multiple trucks on time, all of them requiring road closures.
As unlikely as it sounds, Knight generates drama and suspense out of this volume of potentially dry information. Seemingly endless variables threaten the job’s success, and Locke is shown to have a cool head in a crisis. He troubleshoots each new hurdle as it arises, while absorbing the stress or anger of the callers whose names appear on his dashboard wireless phone display.
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The trigger for Locke’s abrupt flight is a personal dilemma that trumps the professional challenge. In a hospital in London is Bethan (Olivia Colman), a sad-sack assistant with whom he had a tepid one-night stand on a job the previous year. She has gone into premature labor with their child, and Locke is determined to do right by his mistakes.
He declines to give Bethan the false comfort of saying he loves her, pointing out that he hardly knows her. But he’s forced to confess the infidelity to his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson). A methodical step-by-step problem-solver in the workplace, Locke tries applying the same approach to his destabilized marriage. But the situation worsens as he juggles increasingly devastating calls from home with those from London and from colleagues scrambling to keep the job on track.
Knight’s script deploys its metaphors with great skill, and the alienating isolation of driving at night provides the perfect prism through which to observe Locke’s world imploding.
What makes Hardy’s performance so effective is that he doesn’t play Locke as a quick-fix dynamo, nor as some paragon of male nobility, rushing gallantly to the side of a helpless woman. He’s simply an ordinary, even-tempered and decent man in a tough situation, whose moral compass dictates a dutiful sense of follow-through in both private and professional matters. Watching the performance in such unblinking focus is a reminder of how infrequently those qualities define a contemporary screen character.
Hardy seldom raises his voice, and even as cracks form in his composure and the ramifications become clear, flare-ups are kept to a minimum. His line readings are consistently interesting, conveying a lot with little outward display of emotion. But the shattering toll of Locke’s actions is written all over his face as he accepts his fate. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting.
Though they remain unseen, the other key characters are remarkably vivid, from Locke’s work associates to his sons (Tom Holland and Bill Milner), excitedly babbling about the evening’s soccer match until their blissful ignorance of what’s happening begins to fade. The women are especially strong. Wilson takes Kat from bewildered to violated to enraged and intransigent over a number of agitated calls, while Colman’s Bethan is needy and manipulative in ways that are all too human.
There are weak points in the screenplay, the most glaring of them being the out-of-character decision to have Locke sporadically rant at the imagined ghost of his despised father in the back seat. The family history of weakness and neglect that he’s determined to correct could have resurfaced more organically in heated conversations with Kat. And a wrenching chat with his youngest son late into the night feels a touch too “written.” But these are small quibbles in a drama that grips from start to finish.
Shooting on three Red Epic digital cameras, Harris Zambarloukos breathes incredible depth and texture into the tight field, with gorgeous play of light and shadows across the car windows from the passing traffic and road landscape. Justine Wright’s mercurial editing sharpens the movie’s seductive aesthetic, while Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks supplies the coolly propulsive score.
Production: Shoebox Films
Cast: Tom Hardy, Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner
Director-screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Paul Webster, Guy Heeley
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, David Jourdan, Steven Squillante, Joe Wright
Director of photography: Harris Zambarloukos
Costume designer: Nigel Egerton
Editor: Justine Wright
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Sales: IM Global
No rating, 84 minutes
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