Film review

Masculinity

A few good men
‘Felony’ and ‘Locke’ in review

Another year, another Australian crime drama. From The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the first feature-length film ever made, through to contemporary offerings like Animal Kingdom (2010), our cinema is haunted by the penal colony. These films have been, for the most part, films about men. Bad men, good men and morally ambiguous men. Men who are convicts or gaolers, criminals or cops – or both.

Joel Edgerton fits the mould in Felony, a film he wrote and co-produced. Edgerton plays Malcolm “Mad Mal” Toohey, a police detective working in western Sydney. Driving home drunk from a work party, he hits a young bicyclist. Panicking, he lies about the accident to emergency services, and the repercussions of his lie begin to grow.

Toohey is the tormented apex of a character triangle. In the bad corner is Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson), an ageing and cynical career cop, and opposite Summer is Jim Mellic (Jai Courtney), a young jobsworthy whose eagerness to do the right thing doesn’t entirely ring true. Each officer is involved in various subplots that never quite resolve, and which feel more like busywork for the characters than necessary elements of the story. Melissa George has a small role as Toohey’s wife, Julie, while the least developed character is Ankhila Sarduka (Sarah Roberts), the mother of the accident victim. Mellic quickly falls in love with her, and it’s hard to tell why. Presumably, he wants to play the saviour.

Felony looks good, and it’s competently acted; Edgerton succeeds in portraying a man for whom moral conflict soon becomes a torment. But the writing is weaker than it should be. Each character feels like a type, rather than a person – particularly the women, neither of whom is given any back-story. This weakness feels like an endemic problem with current Australian film-making, as if too many average scripts are being rushed into production when, with further work, they could have been made outstanding. Felony is too close to generic – another story about gruff Australian coppers, and god knows we’ve had plenty of those already. As the moral stakes increased for Mal and his colleagues I found it difficult to care, because I felt as if I’d seen it all before.

The same cannot be said of Locke, written and directed by the British film-maker Steven Knight. The plot can be summarised in a single phrase: a man who is driving talks on the phone. Locke takes place almost entirely inside a car, on the motorway from Birmingham to London, and though the visual elements of the film are limited (headlights, windscreen, road-signs), repetition brings with it a certain hypnotism. The dark enclosure of the car, punctuated by light, seems to mirror the cinema itself, and the viewer is drawn in as both an audience and a passenger. Locke feels like entering a dream – or, as for its lead character, driving into a nightmare.

In the film’s opening shots we see a man walk off a massive construction site and drive away in his car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is the site’s foreman, but we aren’t told that immediately. Locke is, among other things, a compelling and strangely moving film about work; a subject that too many scriptwriters avoid, unless, as with policing, the job seems to have intrinsic drama. If you’ve never given a second thought to the logistics of concrete pouring, you will after watching this – the script’s attention to detail makes every action visible to us, even though all we’re looking at is Tom Hardy’s face.

The metaphoric possibilities of the job are fully exploited: Locke is man responsible for laying foundations, and the foundations of his own life are cracking. Knight’s script is beautifully written, and constructed as a series of duologues that take place in something close to real time. Locke takes a series of calls from his wife (Ruth Wilson), his boss (Ben Daniels), and others, insisting he can fix all problems, even as his difficulties increase. He is determined, he says, to “straighten the name out” – he means his own family name, which brings with it a difficult history. The moral dilemma that he poses for an audience is unusual: in his determination to be good, and make atonement, you begin to wonder if Ivan Locke is creating more pain than he would if his decisions were cowardly. There’s an element of self-abasement to his character.

Tom Hardy gives a bravura performance in the title role. He’s an actor who never looks the same in any two films, and here, he seems to have shrunk himself into this carefully spoken, quietly suffering Welshman in a cable-knit sweater – unrecognisable from his brawny roles in Warrior (2011, which Joel Edgerton also starred in) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). As another character remarks of Edgerton’s detective in Felony, he didn’t set out to do a bad thing – but the consequences linger, all the same.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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