Film reviews – The drama of the everyday – Locke and Last Orders

Robert Henderson

Locke main cast – Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke,  Ruth Wilson as Katrina (voice),  Olivia Colman as Bethan (voice), Andrew Scott as Donal (voice),  Ben Daniels as Gareth (voice),  Tom Holland as Eddie (voice),

Director:  Steven Knight

Last orders main  cast – Michael Caine as  Jack Dodds,  Tom Courtenay as  Vic Tucker,  David Hemmings  as  Lenny,  Bob Hoskins as Ray Johnson,  Helen Mirren as  Amy Dodds, Ray Winstone as  Vince Dodds

Director: Fred Schepisi

Perhaps the rarest of  films are those which make gripping dramas out of ordinary life. Unsurprising  because everyday existence does not obviously lend itself to drama. Locke and Last Orders are two  films which show how wrongheaded this idea is by producing gripping and in the case of Last Orders poignant stories from the everyday.

They are very different films. Locke concerns a few hours in someone’s life: Last Orders encompasses a period running from just before the Second World War to the 1990s.  Locke has only one actor on screen: Last orders  follows the lives of half a dozen characters.  Yet set apart as they are on the surface both share a  general similarity of being about  things which could happen to anyone.

Apart from a minute or two at the beginning and end  of the film the entire on screen action  of Locke consists of the eponymous character Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) in his car driving and making and receiving phone calls about his work and private life.  Sounds tedious and limited in dramatic scope with precious little opportunity for  character development?  Don’t you believe it.

Locke is in circumstance Hell. He is a foreman in charge of a building site.  The next day he is due to supervise a huge concrete “pour”, that is  concrete  poured  on site to create a large structure, a very demanding technical task. . But  Locke will not be at the “pour” because he is headed for a hospital where a woman (Bethan) with whom he had a one-night-stand is about to give birth to his child. To add to these  worries his wife Katrina knows nothing of the other woman or impending child and she and their son are expecting him home where Locke  and his son are supposed to  watch a football match together.

Why has he sacrificed so much for a woman he barely knows and a child he has not wanted?   Locke was abandoned by his father soon after his birth and did not meet him until he had reached adulthood and with whom he never came to terms when they did meet as adults. This provides the impetus for  Locke behaving in this quixotic  way because he does he does not want this child to be deserted by its father.  His uneasy relationship with his father also provides a hook for Locke to have imaginary conversations with his father while he drives.  These are  the only weak and sentimental  things in the film.  They  would have been better left out and the circumstances left to speak for themselves .  But  they are  a small blemish.

So far so traumatic, but it gets far worse.   Locke rings one of his workers at the site to get him to do the last minute checking he should have done and to prepare him to oversee the “ concrete pour” in Locke’s place.  But the worker Donal has a drink inside him and does not feel confident of taking Locke’s place.   Locke rings Bethan to say he is on the way.  He speaks to his son and wife saying he will not be home in time for the match.  He discovers that a road he needed closed to allow the concrete to be delivered  has not been closed. He  speaks to his boss  who pleads with him to be there to supervise the concrete “pour” and  eventually  fires him when he realises that Locke will not be at the site to supervise the “pour”.

As Locke  drives he also has the stress of breaking  the news to his wife that he is going to see a woman who is having his child and tries desperately to explain to his son why he will not be home. After several phone calls his wife  decides to throw him out of the house.

As this  seeming never ending barrage of stress hits Locke he keeps his cool and   provides solutions to the practical  difficulties he faces but fails with his relationships. By the end of the film Locke has lost his wife, his home and his job but gained a son and a resolution in his mind of his relationship with his father.

The role of Locke is as demanding a part as could be imagined because the character is centre stage throughout and has to carry the film utterly  for the rest of the cast, which includes some fine actors,  cannot in the nature of things make much  impact because they are simply disembodied voices who appear only in short bursts . Hardy carries it off  immaculately. In fact, this film is made for him because he has great screen presence and exudes self-possession.

This is a  gripping film made from what looks like on paper extremely unpromising  material.  There is no disaster to keep up the tension, just the net of  circumstances remorselessly closing.

Last orders (released 2001)  is centred around as starry a cast of British actors as you are likely to find in a film, namely,  Michael Caine,  Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings,  Bob Hoskins,  Helen Mirren,  Ray Winstone. Often when a cast has so many heavyweight  actors it just does not work either because the actors’  egos clash or the roles they have are too small for them.  Not here. Probably because they are all actors brought up in the English repertory tradition they know how to play as a team.

Vic ,  Lenny ,  Ray  and Vince are on a sentimental journey to scatter the ashes of their old friend Jack Dodds  in Margate.   This is a story with solid  workingclass roots. Jack was an East End butcher ,  Ray  (Bob Hoskins) is a professional gambler and  Jack’s best friend  since they fought together in the second world war; Lenny (David Hemmings) is  a still belligerent  former  boxer;  Vic (Tom Courtenay) a quiet character who is an undertaker and Jack’s adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), a car dealer whose real family  perished in a wartime bombing .

On the journey they stop at various places which were significant in Jack’s life. They reminisce about Jack and the times they had together.  This leads  to flashbacks to various times in their lives and in the lives of  Jack and his wife Amy.   We see the characters in their vigorous hopeful youth before the second world war and  their  subsequent messy way through their lives , lives  full of disappointments and betrayals as well as friendship, love and loyalty.   Old tensions  gradually emerge  and arguments break out, but  these are superficially smoothed over and  Jack’s ashes are scattered  amongst forced sentimentality.

Counterpoised to the four on the trip is Jack’s wife Amy on a journey of her own. For fifty years she has unfailingly  visited her mentally retarded daughter  June (Laura Morelli) in a home, while her husband could barely acknowledge the daughter’s existence, a fact which has tainted their marriage.  The daughter is so severely handicapped she does not even recognise her mother.  At the end of the film Amy decides that 50 years of visiting is enough and sees June one last time.

By the time they have scattered the ashes Vic ,  Lenny ,  Ray  and Vince are all  diminished.  The journey has not been about Jack but themselves.    They have tried to fill their lives  with significance but  either circumstances or their own weaknesses and limitations have prevented it.   They are left only with a sense of unfocused regret.

Little needs to be said about the  acting other than it is uniformly first rate with Caine producing one of his very best performances  with  Helen Mirren  deeply sympathetic as Jack’s wife.

More than a century and a half ago, the American idealist Henry Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”    That is as true today as it was when Thoreau said it,  although  the desperation will have different causes and effects in different times and places.  Locke and Last Orders are,  in their  very different ways,   studies in desperation, of people living lives which are not in their control or even worse potentially within their control but not controlled.

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