Locke (2013): Tom Hardy’s greatest performance lies in this minimalist tour-de-force

Good old Tom Hardy. Since his breakthrough performance twelve years ago in Bronson, the Hammersmith native has compelled audiences with unforgettable roles in Inception, Warrior, The Drop and Legend, and it would also be remiss to neglect his tiny yet unquestionably effective appearances in the likes of Band Of Brothers, Black Hawk Down & Layer Cake. His remarkable dedication to his craft, including the honing of a wide array of idiosyncratic accents and extreme physical transformations, has solidified his reputation as one of the bravest and most talented performers alive today. Whether he is dauntingly chewing the scenery during his spectacularly eccentric rendition of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises or permeating the screen with gritty Regency-era savagery in the BBC’s outstanding Taboo, Hardy long ago proved himself a dynamic artist whose name understandably imbues critics and audiences with anticipatory fervour.

My personal favourite performance of his, the one that has truly left a second-to-nothing impression, is not found in one of Nolan’s epics or any extended set-piece that demands a large screen, but in a rather quiet little film from 2013 that has accumulated legions of strong admirers and detractors alike. Shot on a minuscule budget and never leaving its opening location, Locke marks a prodigious accomplishment for Hardy and writer-director Steven Knight and represents minimalist cinema in its quintessence.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) is a successful Welsh construction manager operating in Birmingham. He has a loving wife and two teenage sons, is highly respected by colleagues and is about to oversee the largest commercial concrete pour in European history. The night before the task, Ivan’s family are excitedly awaiting his arrival to watch a crucial football match at home. But he isn’t coming home this evening.

Ivan has a monumental secret, and it is reaching crisis point tonight. Climbing into his trusty BMW X5, he leaves his job site and makes haste for London down the M40 motorway (although the film was actually shot on the M6), spending the next 80 minutes engaged in a deluge of nerve-racking speakerphone calls with everyone of conceivable importance in his life and privately motivating himself for the inevitable fallout, all in real-time. Before the night is over, Ivan Locke’s existence will have transformed beyond recognition, forever.

A film that only features its protagonist in the flesh, with said protagonist spending just shy of an hour and a half making phone calls on a long drive, is probably not a work with which you’d expect somebody to associate the phrase ”One of the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had”. And yet Locke is, indeed, just that. Hardy’s muscular and convincing performance is a masterclass in solo acting, his chemistry with the voice cast and authentic gamut of emotion creating a very vivid and realised character, building his world in our heads via his conversations. The commitment of those providing nothing more than their larynx, including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Tom Holland, Lee Ross & Alice Lowe, enables the crafting of an intense and immersive literal ride, where every dial tone puts the viewer on the precipice of a panic attack.

The character of Ivan Locke, as Hardy portrays him, is one of the most substantive and intriguing dramatis personae I’ve ever come across, a factor that I can’t help but feel would evaporate in a more conventional production. A shrewd, logical and blunt man, Ivan dives resolutely and head-first into the tackling of an impossibly stressful multitude of dilemmas, unswayed by the anger, sadness and disappointment he causes his loved ones and work acquaintances. He doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat his contentious predicament and is obstinate in what he considers his rational strategy in context. Holding a total of 36 calls with his employer, backup colleague, wife, sons and local police and council authorities, Ivan coolly juggles where the majority of people might collapse. There are also a few others he converses with but I won’t mention who they are, if you haven’t seen the film then it’s best to allow Ivan to explain himself to you. He is far from a perfect man, but his strident belief in personal accountability drew some admiration from yours truly.

When asked why he elected to use a Welsh accent for his portrayal, Hardy responded that he wanted to utilise something that had a soft and lyrical quality to it, bolstering Ivan’s calm demeanour in the face of gargantuan stress. It works extremely well in the construction of this disciplined and methodical character, Ivan’s colleagues mentioning his reputation for running a tight ship and incredulous as to how he could find himself in such a bind. In his rare moments of rage, Hardy infuses his dialogue with something of a Burtonesque eloquence that surely renders the film a more poetic experience than if he had opted for any other kind of intonation. In a twisted way, Ivan is something of an inspirational character, for his fortitude and indomitable commitment to doing the right thing if nothing else.

The visual sensibility cultivated by Knight and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is a perfectly emotive underpinning, the digital cameras rarely capturing anything outside of Hardy’s face or the car interior and illuminated by little more than the shimmering lights of the motorway at night. Few locations complement the notion of contemplative solitude as well as long, street-lit stretches of road, many travellers being unaccompanied as they journey along them in their metal box of isolation with nothing but time to reflect. Ivan is one of an endless succession of drivers with untold things occurring in their lives, something that is conveyed with profound subtlety in the beautiful final shot. Dickon Hinchliffe’s score also provides an undertow of poignancy and measured suspense throughout.

An existential treatise-cum-character study wrapped inside a thriller, Locke is an intelligent, anxiety-inducing and ultimately deeply moving work about rectification, sacrifice and the edification of decisions that we make in our lives. The film critic David Thomson had the following to say: “No film I’ve seen in recent years is more eloquent on where we are now, and on how alone we feel. There is little left but to watch and listen.” A wonderfully succinct summary of the picture’s mental-emotional experience that I couldn’t agree with more, and Hardy’s breathtaking work ensured that there were no dry eyes here by the time the credits rolled. With limited tools, a masterpiece was created, and if you’ve yet to see it you are cheating yourself out of one of the most valuable pieces of cinema that has ever been offered.

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