Locked Down combines a solid heist movie and an overwritten character drama, but is elevated by the specificity of its setting.
Perhaps one of the most interesting creative dilemmas facing movies now is how storytellers will deal with COVID-19 over the coming years. It goes without saying that a pandemic that’s killed nearly 2 million people worldwide in less than a year will be a dominant element in the arts. Our earliest pieces of COVID entertainment have just started grappling with the pandemic. This Is Us sees the characters now wearing masks whenever outdoors. Songbird showed the first piece of post-pandemic horror, a genre certain to be revisited endlessly.
And so enters Locked Down. Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) and writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) have crafted a story that’s part character drama and part heist film. Most interestingly, the movie was filmed in London as the pandemic still raged and thus, in its way, crafts a little historical time capsule into the COVID era. It is the first film ever to shoot in the famed department store Harrods, as a result of the opportunity created by the store’s closure due to the pandemic. And it is steeped in the sort of details that resonate with people who spent the pandemic in a city.
Everyone is going to bring their own COVID experience into these sorts of movies. I was in Manhattan for much of the pandemic, trying to juggle the responsibilities of a young son, a pregnant wife, my day job, and my passion for film writing. I lived just blocks from Union Square, which saw some of the tensest moments of the Black Lives Matter protests. I cannot escape from my own experience in watching a movie like this. It is in the small, earnest details that Locked Down feels most precise: the release of the evening clap for frontline workers, the upper body only Zoom dress style, and far too much wine at far too many hours of the day.
Our protagonists – gamely played by Anne Hathaway (Love and Other Drugs, The Witches) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) – had only just begun the process of disentangling their lives together when lockdown struck rendering them trapped together in the pandemic’s early weeks. Much of the film focuses on the tension of their life together: two people forced to survive together despite a crumbling relationship. It is in the interpersonal relationship that the film feels least fully formed. The practical reality is that Locked Down came together very quickly. Doug Liman has acknowledged that at times the shooting schedule was so tight that the two leads needed to tape dialogue to each other’s costumes in order to keep up with film’s technical needs. Unfortunately, it shows.
Hathaway and Ejiofor’s frequent scenes of relationship tension feel less like the dissection of a failed relationship and more like a series of exposition dumps. In many ways, it feels like the film has shot an early screenplay draft where backstory is larded into Zoom conversations in a way entirely divorced from how real human beings speak. As one character describes a past romantic entanglement in a video chat, I was struck by the feeling that the scene felt as far removed from the reality of the great many Zoom chats I had during the pandemic: a screenwriter’s device trumping human interaction. It’s too bad, because I imagine performers as talented as these two could have mustered a compelling character study.
A great number of famous faces appear here via Zoom call as friends or colleagues: Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mindy Kaling, and Stephen Merchant among them. All are pleasant additions, but none is given enough material to resonate in the film. It is not until the film’s final act – the heist of a diamond at Harrods – that the movie really comes together. Liman is a natural at generating the sort of tension necessary to make a crime scene effective. The writing feels looser and more fun – perhaps more improvisational – as the film’s goofier elements (including a running joke about people not knowing who Edgar Allen Poe is) pay off in a reasonably compelling sequence heightened by a great shooting location. Hathaway and Ejiofor seem more at ease in these scenes as well.
Unfortunately, the heist is only a small portion of the film’s total runtime. Too much time is spent on Liman’s efforts to emulate the sort of guerilla filmmaking character story Steve Soderbergh usually elevates. Still, Locked Down remains an interesting piece of COVID cinema. While the film is flawed, it is one of the purest representations of COVID era London we’re likely to see and thus stands as an interesting time capsule to the experience of the pandemic in a major city.
Locked Down premiered on HBO Max on January 14, 2021.