Film discussion

Tom Hardy’s Locke – An Ordinary Tragedy

Long before Venom, Tom Hardy held the screen as Ivan Locke. We look back at Steven Knight's tense auto-based drama...

Who are we when no-one can see us? When we glance at a call-waiting signal on our mobile phones and ponder whether to answer or not, putting on a fake uplift in our voice? What if that call triggered a decision in you, seemingly out of character, that would cause a seismic shift in the concrete founds (or shackles?) of your routinely ordered life? So is set in literal motion the “ordinary tragedy” of Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders, Hummingbird) singularly gripping drama, Locke.

Ivan Locke is a construction manager married with two kids. He’s finally knocking off work late in the evening to return home to watch a big football match with his sons – even his wife has donned “the shirt”. Early tomorrow he’ll be back on site to supervise the largest concrete pour in Europe outside of nuclear or military projects. 218 cement trucks will be arriving from first light. Everything rides on the last detail being followed and checked off by this dependable guy who’s built a rock solid reputation over nine years – road closures, mixes, the lot.

Yet, a phone call out of the blue from a lonely colleague telling him she’s going into premature labour after a one night stand (he’s the father – can he come, now, please?) has him immediately agree, dropping everything to get to her. The film then follows his almost real-time journey down the motorway from Birmingham to London as he juggles phone calls, confessing to his wife, pretending all’s well to his kids, soothing the panicky, needy expectant mother, fending off his apoplectic boss and doling out inspiration and instructions to his shaky subordinate (“Do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building!“), insisting this is something he *has* to do. As his wife snipes at him later, he is a man whose very footprints turn to stone.

Tom Hardy’s mellifluously voiced plate-spinner is named for John Locke, the philosopher who deemed that everyone is in charge of their own destiny. Locke believes he can make everything right, and as the film and his night-time journey of the soul continues and deepens, it transpires there is a secret deep well of bitter, brackish gloom that he has always been clawing his way out of. Ahead is the future, in his control, he believes, as reflected in every call waiting, GPS signal and subsequent, methodical decision he makes as a result. In the past is his nemesis, glimpsed like a ghost in the rear view mirror – his dead-beat, dead dad. The man he vowed to never be. He even begins to berate this phantom, insisting he’ll never run from his kid, whether unexpected, unwarranted, or not. (Locke doesn’t reciprocate the expectant mother Bethan’s (Olivia Colman) “I love you,” calmly dismissing this as something said in the moment, under air and gas. This has happened. It will be dealt with, properly.) In some ways he reflects a common archetype of Michael Mann’s films – the Pinteresquely precise professional, unwavering, self-reliant.

Knight and Hardy had wanted to work together for some time, and the tight schedule was literally squeezed in between Hardy’s ongoing commitments to other, bigger films. The idea for the film sprang from night time testing of digital cameras shooting from moving vehicles during Knight’s previous film, Hummingbird (AKA Redemption), starring Jason Statham. The mesmeric play of light approaching and receding became a theatre tapestry against which this insular bubble of a solo performance would carry the entire film. Locke could be seen as selfish, arrogant, believing he can fix everything (“The difference between never and once is the difference between right and wrong“, his wife snaps at one point) or just a decent human being, supremely, crazily confident in the eye of the storm.

“Because his job is to control things and sort out problems, I didn’t ever want him going with other people’s emotions,” Knight recalled to Open Letters Monthly. “So when someone else on the phone gets angry or upset, I didn’t want Locke to get angry or upset, but to stay in control and move to the next practical step.” Hardy based Locke’s welsh accent on that of a fellow named Bill Freear, who runs a specialist risk management firm called Pilgrim’s Group. “I went with him to the Middle East because I needed to do some research for another film, and Bill got me in and out of hostile environments like Kabul with no body armour and the minimum of fuss – a very low key, down to earth and practical bloke. And I spent a solid amount of time listening to him talk and thought to myself, “This is the guy, that’s Ivan Locke right there”.”

Hardy’s accent has a soothing, calming effect, despite the pouring of oil on troubled waters. It transpires though, that Freear isn’t from Wales at all, he’s from Surrey in England. Locke never loses his composure, except when he berates the spectre of his father. “He had to sound like Richard Burton, like he could put out fires with his voice,” according to Hardy, talking to Wales Online. Knight felt that, “When we see emotion in Locke, when he’s crying, his voice is doing the opposite, saying, “It’s all fine, there’s nothing wrong, nothing’s happened.” (“You sound different.”/”I am the same.”).”

William Friedkin has expressed regret at not casting Steve McQueen in his Wages Of Fear semi-remake, Sorcerer, believing a close-up is worth a thousand wide-shots. Here, Hardy exemplifies that maxim to the max – his eyes and weighted shoulders hunched over the wheel convey a sea change of irrevocable divesting of societal norms. As if he’s wading through concrete “like piss” that he warns his deputy Donal (Andrew Scott) not to accept. “Donal, you don’t trust God when it comes to concrete.” Little visual details act as metaphors – the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) sticker suggests Locke’s car is a little boat cast adrift in a stormy sea. The Help For Heroes wristband he wears a self-mocking dig at his motivations.

Knight, who wrote and directed, shot on the M6 and performed the script completely uninterrupted, over two weeks of night shoots, Hardy’s car on a low-loader. Three cameras were used while the script was fed to Hardy via auto-cues placed on the low-loader (next to the director), in the rear-view mirror, and in the GPS. Guided by a discrete police escort, the crew manoeuvred into whatever the traffic might throw at them. The rest of the unseen cast were gathered together in a hotel conference room and called to the phone to deliver their lines to Hardy “live”, treating the project as if it were a play. Occasionally the director would give them notes to subtly adjust the tempo:

“For example, for Ruth Wilson, who plays Ivan’s wife, I said, ‘Try the scene as if you’ve always wanted to get rid of him. You know, you’ve wanted to get rid of him for two years, three years. And this is your chance. So you’re jumping at it. You are angry, but it’s sort of a relief to you as well.’ I didn’t tell Tom I was doing it, so often it would come as a surprise. And that was good, because then he had to adjust and you could see the adjustment.”

At the end of the two weeks, Knight and his editor Justine Wright sifted through more than 68 hours of footage, viewing up to four different takes of a sequence side by side to piece together the best cut. Locke went on to win the British Independent Film Award for 2013 for Best Screenplay, and Hardy won for his portrayal of Locke at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

When the director had first tested those digital cameras at night on the roads, his first instinct was “maybe you can make that into a piece of art – just a live shot at night from a moving vehicle that looked sort of random but very composed.” And all those vehicles passing Locke are a bubble unto themselves, with their own stories. Life’s rich tapestry in blurred, sodium-lit, self-deceiving sophistry.

Locke is not currently available on any UK streaming services. Tom Hardy is now in cinemas as Venom.

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