Review: Locked Down spins a pandemic drama into a heist movie

Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring a screwball energy to HBO Max's pandemic heist movie.


LOCKED DOWN (Doug Liman). 117 minutes. Available to stream on Crave. Thursday, January 14. Rating: NNNN


The surprise movie drop is becoming a staple of the pandemic – and you know what, I’m all for it. It feels like a triumph when anyone finishes anything these days. And the news that Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anne Hathaway and Doug Liman went off and shot a heist picture in London while everyone else was learning how to make sourdough is downright charming.

It feels like something Steven Soderbergh would do for kicks, and indeed a lot of Locked Down has his handmade run-and-gun sensibility; COVID protocols have forced a lot of filmmakers to strip down their productions to the levels he’s been working at for decades. Liman, who started in indies but quickly moved to massive studio properties like The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Edge Of Tomorrow, hasn’t done anything this intimate in a long time. I imagine he leapt at the chance.

Locked Down is the story of Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Linda (Anne Hathaway), two Londoners trapped together in their comfortable home even though they’re no longer partnered. They were a couple for 10 years, came apart after a miserable Christmas and were finalizing their separation just as the city went into lockdown. The movie is vague about when it takes place, but I think it’s supposed to be last April: long enough for most people to have figured out how to work from home, but not long enough for everyone to have adjusted to the new normal.

The first half of Locked Down employs the same pandemic narrative we’ve seen multiple times over the last few months, focusing on people trapped for too long in the same space, using Zoom calls to vary the action and slip in some exposition, and checking in on the larger world through news broadcasts and the occasional trip outside.

We learn, for example, that Paxton and Linda both used to be pretty wild, but settled into more responsible lives. She’s an executive in a global insurance company, while he’s struggled to build a career because of some unpleasantness in his past. He currently works as a driver for a small courier company. And as much as they’ve drifted apart, their lives seem poised to crashing back together when Linda is tasked to retrieve a very valuable diamond from Harrod’s, and the pickup is assigned to Paxton’s route. And stealing that diamond would certainly give them the chance to be wild again.

The circumstances are preposterous, but – as we’re constantly being reminded – these are unprecedented times. And Locked Down is written by Steven Knight, who likes to build entire movies on unlikely opportunities and eccentric choices – like Dirty Pretty Things (which was Ejiofor’s breakout role) and Locke, the movie where Tom Hardy has an entire existential crisis while driving from Birmingham to London. (Knight also gave us the profoundly silly Matthew McConaughey thriller Serenity, which co-starred Hathaway; nobody’s perfect.)

Knight designs Locked Down as giddy wish-fulfillment for anyone who’s been desperate to break routine, letting his characters act on their impulses. (Linda’s started drinking during work Zooms; Paxton goes on motorcycle rides through the empty city, inventing a new game where he stops at green lights and goes through red ones.) Liman gives his stars the space to bounce off of one another – sometimes literally – and they respond by finding strange little tics that feel like the logical release of pent-up stress: Linda’s renewed smoking habit gives Hathaway the means to play out a sliding scale of comic frustration, and Ejiofor lets Paxton’s mounting panic manifest itself as a sort of full-body twitch.

Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller, Stephen Merchant and Mindy Kaling put in brief appearances as characters who exist almost exclusively on screens, and while none of them has much to do, it’s just nice to see them turn up – a reminder that everyone’s going through their own thing during lockdown.

Really, though, it’s all about Paxton and Linda – and Ejiofor and Hathaway find a complementary energy that makes me wish someone would cast them in a proper screwball comedy once all of this is over. The best moments in Locked Down have that DNA; I’d love to see how it works when there’s a bigger world available to them again.

@normwilner

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