Tom Hardy wasn’t built to be the humble, humdrum everyman. He’s got too much brio and bravado to play the ordinary souls like us and, so far, his standout turns have been as extraordinary larger-than-life creatures: as the titular psychotic criminal in Bronson or the nightmarish, menacing terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s never been anything less than totally believable. But a bog-standard bloke with normal problems? No-one’s buying that, Tom.
Or they wouldn’t have until Locke: a solo thriller in which Hardy plays buttoned-up Welsh construction foreman Ivan Locke as he drives from Birmingham to London with only a hands-free mobile for company. His drive is a long, dark night of the soul: a drunken one-night stand with a co-worker has left her pregnant, and he’s on his way to the hospital for the birth. En route, he has to confess his infidelity to his wife, apologise to his children for missing an important football match, and remotely oversee the final details of a lucrative project to build a skyscraper.
And… that’s essentially it. And that’s all it needs to be, too, because Hardy is so expressive as the softly-spoken Ivan, bumbling his way through one awkward conversation after another as his life unravels. “She isn’t what you would call an oil painting,” he stammers while talking to his wife, furrowing his brow as he fills her in on the mother of his new child. Later, in a discussion with the pregnant Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman), he switches between squirming discomfort and stoic deadpanning as she tries to force him to tell her he loves her. “Can’t you say it just once?” she begs. “No, but I can be there as fast as traffic will allow,” he offers instead.
Director Stephen Knight focuses so unflinchingly on Hardy that the interior of his BMW begins to feel like an claustrophobic bubble, where every flinch of his face, puffing of his cheeks or rolling back of a shirt sleeve is as revealing as a soliloquy. The building project isn’t just a work obligation; it becomes a gutsy, daring heist as Ivan and his assistant Donal (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott) bicker back-and-forth about safety measures and council procedures. “We’re stealing back the sky!” thunders Ivan and, an hour ago, you’d have thought them a pair of daft sods; now, you’re completely captivated by the story of a man, his flaky assistant and their quest to pour some concrete into a big hole.
And then there’s his personal mess: the stilted, awkward conversations with Bethan, the embarrassed silences with his wife, and most heartbreakingly, the scene in which he listens to his son tell him excitedly about the football match he missed. He sits, red-eyed, and eventually forces himself to snort out some laughter to appear normal, when he knows that in a few hours he’s going to have to break some life-changing news. It’s a masterclass in restrained tension and tetchiness.
It’s only when Knight veers from these naturalistic conversations that things go awry: there’s a series of vengeful monologues in which Ivan lambasts his layabout father for abandoning him as a boy, and reveals exactly why he’s so determined to to the right thing no matter the cost. They’re eloquent, but still fell less revealing than those uncomfortable phone calls. When Hardy’s as brilliantly subtle as this, there’s no need for hokey drama – here, he makes less mean so, so much more.