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In 'Locke,' A Man's Life Unravels En Route To London

Tom Hardy plays the title character in the British film <em>Locke — </em>in which a man's life unravels in the course of a solo drive from Birmingham to London. He's the only person the audience sees in this film, written and directed by Steven Knight.
Tom Hardy plays the title character in the British film Locke — in which a man's life unravels in the course of a solo drive from Birmingham to London. He's the only person the audience sees in this film, written and directed by Steven Knight.

Locke is a most unusual film. It might not seem so odd as a radio play or even a stage play. The protagonist, his situation — they're fairly conventional. But to do what Locke does as a movie — that takes daring. The film is set in one space at one time. The arc of action is continuous. There is only one character on screen and just the top third of him, a man in a car, southbound on a motorway toward London. His name is Ivan Locke, he's played by Tom Hardy, and he's upending his life in front of your eyes.

Or, rather, your ears. Locke has a hands-free phone, and he's making and taking calls from first moment to last. The conversations are urgent, because Locke has just left his home and job without warning. In the first 15 minutes, we learn there's a woman in London about to give birth to a baby he fathered, and she's not his wife. He barely, truth to tell, knows her. We also learn something momentous will happen at his job very early in the morning, and he won't be there. It's one of Europe's all-time biggest pours.

Pours, as in concrete. There's an immense building going up, and Locke is in charge of the foundation. Tens of millions of dollars ride on that pour, and good old steady-solid-responsible Locke is the most reliably superb of all pourers. This is because of his reverence for the concrete. He speaks of it poetically as something that lives and breathes, and of the buildings it supports that will "displace the sky."

So, as he drives, Locke has heated conversations with his outraged boss, a drunken underling who must now take charge of the pour, the policemen who must close the roads and councilman who must approve those closings — not to mention his sons waiting for him to come home to watch a big soccer match, his wife who suspects nothing, and the woman in the London hospital, whose labor is increasingly dire. The conversations with one of the sons are the most heartbreaking.

Tom Hardy is one of those actors I'd be afraid to approach on the street. He's not big, but the fact that he played the psychotic strong man Bane in The Dark Knight Rises tells you he can look and act huge. He has what Richard Burton had, at least before Burton turned sodden from booze — a quicksilver temperament. A low boil is Hardy's natural state. He's bearded here, which softens his thick lips, and the accent he adopts reminds me of Burton's — the effect is like a bully boy smoothing his edges to play a king. But nothing can soften Hardy's innate volatility.

Writer-director Steven Knight has, as I've said, done an ordinary thing in an extraordinary way. Ivan Locke — who has left his former life to reverse his destiny, who speaks with awe about displacing sky, who reminds us his world now consists of himself and his car — is a textbook existential hero. Why has he taken this dramatic step? Without revealing too much, I'll say it all goes back to his childhood. He's asserting that he's not a slave to Fate.

Knight gives us something else on screen in Locke: a near-abstract lightscape. The headlights that pass blur into ovals — toward the end in a steady rain they vaguely resemble angels, though perhaps I'm projecting. Reflections, double exposures, patches of melancholy blue and searing yellow: It all matches the hero's inner state. But Hardy is the movie's heart and soul. Once you've spent an hour and a half in a car with him, you'll never forget his face.

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David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.

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