Ivan Locke may very well be "the best man in England", as is said at one point, but his painful "pilgrim's progress" while on the road to London only underlines how hard it can be to do the right thing and how wrong can it also be. Over the course of a motorway road movie that never leaves either its one set or its one actor, writer/director Steven Knight crystallizes a single moment in life where a man has to choose between hell and high water, aware that the right thing is anything but a zero sum game. With a demanding, important job coming up in the morning in his capacity as a construction foreman but a one-night stand about to give birth early to his unexpected child in London, Locke has to juggle work, marriage and life in order to do what he believes to be right.
The key to the second directing effort from the writer of Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things lies in the unusual device Mr. Knight has chosen for his tale of yet another man at a crossroads: only one actor on screen inside a moving car in nearly real time. All information is conveyed purely through dialogue as Locke makes and takes hands-free phone calls and occasionally attempts to rationalise his decision by talking to himself or, more adequately, the absent father whose example has led him to this situation. Though other actors pitch in as the disembodied voices on the phone, Locke is essentially a one-man show and the always great Tom Hardy repays Mr. Knight's confidence in him with a sterling, delicately handled performance, entirely based on posture, voice and face work. His almost casual intensity, simultaneously coiled and relaxed, able to effortlessly pull up the right emotion at the right moment with an almost eerie rightness, is the acting equivalent of precision driving in a film that can occasionally feel as if it's running around in circles.
Though the narrative construction of Mr. Knight's script is impeccable, there's really only so much cutaways and different angles you can shoot in such a limited set. The writer/director was right to choose an actor whose sheer presence and enthusiasm would make up for the aesthetic limitations both his handling and the film's constraints show (the many motorway shots can occasionally suggest an over-expanded driving montage, and the score by usually spot-on composer Dickon Hinchliffe is more intrusive than it should be). Despite the smartness of the film's formal experiment and the strength of its scripting, Locke's intimacy can feel somewhat too small for the big screen, the depth of field of its widescreen threatening to drown what might have made a first-rate TV drama. But the intelligence with which Mr. Hardy and Mr. Knight feed off each other throughout, with the actor pushing the script to new heights and the director making the most of his actor's performance, more than make up for any shortcomings. It's a modest, smart film that simply wants to tell a good story well, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
United Kingdom, USA 2013
Cast Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels
Director and screenwriter Steven Knight; cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (color, widescreen); composer Dickon Hinchliffe; costumes Nigel Egerton; editor Justine Wright; producers Paul Webster and Guy Heeley; production companies IM Global and Shoebox Films
Screened June 6th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)