By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 3, 2013 at 6:54AM
Of all the genres, the single location film is perhaps one of the hardest to get right. For one, you need a hell of an actor (or actors) to hold the attention for even the briefest of running times. You also need a story that coherently keeps the actors in place, with enough of a hook to keep you involved. And you need to keep things visually interesting enough to stop it being too static without being showy. It’s a big ask, Hitchcock was the master of the style, and there are a select few other examples, but most turn out poorly.
Thus we were a touch cautious going into “Locke.” Conceived, written, shot and finished in less than nine months from page to premiere, the film is the second feature from “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” writer Steven Knight, who made his debut only a few short months ago with Jason Statham vehicle “Hummingbird” (known in the U.S. as “Redemption”). Ambitiously, it’s set entirely within a moving car driving from Birmingham to London, with only one actor seen on screen. Fortunately, Knight has real chops as a filmmaker and even more fortunately, the actor is Tom Hardy, one of the most compelling screen presences around at the moment.
Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a well-liked and respected construction foreman who’s just walked out on the biggest job of his career — a concrete pour that will number among the biggest ever performed in Europe. He’s heading to London to a see a woman (Olivia Colman, who like everyone in the cast except Hardy, is heard over the phone but never seen) in a hospital. It’s not clear at first quite why he’s going, but as he drives through the night, calling his wife (Ruth Wilson), his kids (Tom Holland and Bill Milner), his boss (Ben Daniels) and his friend and colleague (Andrew Scott), it becomes apparent that he’s reluctantly tearing his life down in order, it appears, to do what he considers to be the right thing.
We’re being deliberately vague here, because a major part of the pleasures of “Locke” is the way that Knight — who also wrote the screenplay — parcels out little pieces of information to reveal why the title character is on his journey. Every call reveals a little more about the man, another little facet or tidbit of information, and while the film, genre-wise isn’t the thriller it was initially billed as — there’s no contrived threat or race against time, beyond getting to London at the end of 90 minutes — it often feels like one.
In part, that’s due to the quality of direction. This writer has to confess he didn’t see “Hummingbird” (which got fairly mixed notices), but on the strength of this, I’d certainly like to check it out. Knight keeps things entirely focused on the car, with the camera mostly on the inside (there are couple of exterior shots, but they never break the mood), and “Thor” DoP Harris Zambarloukos’s Michael Mann-ish photography perfectly captures the sort of long nighttime drive of the soul that many of us could identify with (it’s also paired well with a very strong score by Dickon Hinchcliffe (“Winter’s Bone”).
The supporting cast — especially Scott, of “Sherlock” fame — all do excellent work (the actors all called in live from a hotel room during the film’s real-time shoot), but there isn’t so much as a sliver of doubt that the film belongs entirely to Hardy. He initially seems a little young for the role but under a hearty beard and a deep-voiced Welsh accent (that seems to be a nod to Richard Burton), he proves himself to be a worthwhile choice, giving the performance of his career to date.
Ivan Locke is, ultimately, a good man, and one who’s very much concerned with what it is to be a good man. Born to a worthless drifter of a father who abandoned him at a young age (the imagined dialogues with his now-deceased pops make up most of the film’s few false notes, though as a way of introducing his backstory, they’re an acceptable evil), he’s determined not to repeat the same mistakes, even if it means deliberately imploding the life he’s built in the process. Knight’s screenplay is careful to show him as a logical, practical man (“Let’s look for a practical next step”), on an atypically illogical day, and while some of his decisions are frustrating, Hardy always makes them understandable.
It’s a very complete portrait of a man — one who can be commanding, weak, funny, loving, cold, single-minded, selfless and selfish — and by the end of the
drive you feel like you’ve known Ivan for years. You might not necessarily like him but few could fail to feel for him. It’s an impressive achievement in
a very impressive film, one that can only increase the esteem in which both Knight and Hardy are held. [B+]