A family man and successful construction manager, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), is about to confront the biggest challenge of his career. On the eve of this new project, Locke receives a phone call that sets in motion a series of events that threaten his life and that of his family's. The action takes place in the course of a single drive home.

3.5

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Two of the biggest guns in a filmmaker’s arsenal are the Star and the Close-up. Of course the final impact depends on how effective that Star is in filling that Close-up. At worst you may end up counting nostril hair or studying craters that eluded the surgeon’s skill. At best? Well John Ford, who knew something about both movie stars and spectacular scenery, said that when the clouds ruined the light for the landscape shot a good director could still shoot the most exciting thing in movies… an actor’s face. I’m not exactly certain what he meant but I think it had something to do with the notion that without the emotion a fine actor can provide there is no story and without that story you ain’t got a movie no matter how good the scenery is.

I had that thought watching Locke, which debuted in Venice last year to solidly enthusiastic reviews and is in competition in Sydney. It has the actor, Tom Hardy, in full beard, which only draws attention to the peril in the man’s eyes. He is perhaps not quite a big Star in the conventional sense, but he’s most certainly effective in a role that could seem silly if it weren’t for the gravitas he brings to it.

All Locke really has is Hardy in shot for 85 minutes behind the wheel of a BMW as it barrels down a superhighway one dark night, hazard lights dancing like tiny, threatening asteroids on its glossed surface. (Locke abounds with leaden existential metaphors.)

Strictly speaking, much of the film isn’t in what filmmakers actually call a ‘close-up’. But let’s just say we’re on Hardy’s face, face-on most of the time, close enough to see the subtlest disturbance twitch his features, close enough to read the logbook of pain in his gaze.

That’s very important because Hardy is playing a guy who is in deep trouble. And it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this guy – who never fools us that he’s anything but decent, if silly – is the architect of his own agony.

Locke was written and directed by Steven Knight who scripted Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. They were thrillers and Locke is not, but the new film has a propulsive mood and a look - courtesy of Harris Zambarloukos’
cinematography - that coats every thing in a wash of shadowy fear.

The thriller feel is aided and abetted by the fact that Knight traps us inside the world of a guy who is himself trapped. The suspense of the movie isn’t so much about asking whether he’ll survive his ‘dark night of the soul’ journey but whether it will leave him dead at heart or reborn to run.

Hardy plays Ivan Locke, based in Birmingham, a big-time construction manager working for a Chicago-based corporation. The action of the movie begins the night before Locke faces the greatest logistical challenge of his career; a giant concrete pour for a huge skyscraper, the engineering specs of which are formidable enough, the script tells us, to rival a missile silo.

Locke’s responsibilities dictate that he ought to be putting the finishing touches on this job and besides, he has a family date at home with his missus Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and his two boys, where bangers, beers and the match of day eagerly await.

But another kind of responsibility beckons Locke away from loyalty to what most of think of as the foundations of a good, strong life (and hear that? that’s the sonic boom of another metaphor crashing into place.)

For Locke, we learn, has strayed. An away-from-home job brought him into temptation in the form of a lonely woman Bethan (Olivia Colman) who is now having Locke’s child.

So Locke is on the road to London where a fearful Bethan endures a complicated labour; he is going to be there to hold her hand. He does not love her. But for him it is the only thing to do, because as he explains to all those people he is letting down, it is the right thing to do; people like his furious boss Gareth (Ben Daniels) and his distraught wife, and his rather clueless subordinate Donel (Andrew Scott).

Locke then is a test case in minimalist technique for all this plot we learn in dialogue. Throughout this short trip Locke is making and taking calls on the car-phone. Locke, this master of construction, is dissembling and re-building his life. Hardy plays Locke with a soft Welsh purr, a voice of honey, steel and gold. It strokes, and soothes, even in mid-confession and listening to it, it’s easy to be sold on how this guy landed in a position of authority; he knows his stuff and never bullies, even under pressure. Of course there’s an irony here. We have exclusive access to Locke. We see the agony of a man who understands he is a kind of fraud; as for his wife, his colleagues… well, they only hear what Locke wants them to hear.

We never leave the ‘cockpit’ of Locke’s Beamer so we never get to meet the other characters on camera. But Knight manages the material and the set-up brilliantly; the ‘voice’ performances are all perfectly cast and delivered expertly. It helps that the dialogue is sharp, truthful and carefully modulated. It travels a varied dramatic territory from comic to melodramatic to psychodrama and back and it seems that every five minutes there’s some new detail, some hard to manage twist for Locke to wrangle into its proper place (the story summary here is scant believe me.)

Still, there’s something too neat and precise about the psychology of Locke. That’s maybe too harsh. I was riveted. But put it this way; there’s more to be learned and to be felt, in Hardy’s face, in that voice, about emotional involvement and its epic boundaries than in some elaborately built but ultimately weightless metaphor about concrete construction and getting lost in space.