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Locked Down

We all knew it had to happen, and it happened surprisingly quickly: A feature film from a major mainstream studio (albeit one with a relatively microscopic $3 million reported budget) with a star-studded A-list cast, entirely developed, produced, set, and shot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bad news is that it was written by Steven Knight, who previously inflicted the thrice-double-damned Serenity (2019) abomination upon us. The good news is that it was directed by Doug Liman, the underrated action filmmaker who previously gifted us with The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. The aforementioned cast includes such names as Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mindy Kaling, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Merchant, and Dule Hill.

Quite the mixed bag we’ve got here, and quite the untamed wilderness these filmmakers are breaking into. Let’s take a closer look.

Our stage is set in London, just after Boris Johnson tested COVID-positive. This is the story of Paxton and Linda, a married couple respectively played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. The two were on the rocks before the pandemic, and so much time in lockdown has actively driven them even further apart. Yet they’re still stuck in the same house together, because of the lockdown. On top of that, Paxton just got put on furlough and the financial strain forced him to sell his prized motorcycle.

As for Linda, she’s still employed with a huge international conglomerate. In fact, she’s the CEO of the UK division. And at the twenty-minute mark, she has to tell a bunch of her valued co-workers that they’re all laid off. Via Zoom call. So, yeah, she’s not exactly in a great place now either.

In summary, Paxton and Linda are both reduced to hazardous bundles of anxiety with nothing and nobody else to take their frustrations out on. So they’re driving each other crazy in a toxic feedback loop. It’s like the two of them want to part ways on good terms, but their mental states in a time of global crisis make that exceedingly difficult.

Anyway, long story short, Paxton’s old boss (Malcolm, played by Ben Kingsley) runs a delivery service and he’s just picked up a new client for extremely high-value parcels. Trouble is, the new client demands drivers without a criminal record and Paxton got a minor conviction several years ago. Yet Malcolm is so desperate for drivers that he’s willing and able to get Paxton the job under a new name and a clean identity.

Meanwhile — to make another long story short — Linda’s company was responsible for staging a massive event at Harrod’s, with an outrageously expensive diamond as its centerpiece. Then the lockdown happened, the event was cancelled, and the diamond is stuck between safe houses. So, why not steal the diamond, sell it off, give half the proceeds to the NHS, and use the rest of the proceeds to help their laid-off friends and loved ones?

That’s right, folks: We’ve got a COVID-era diamond heist. Kinda. Sorta.

See, the heist doesn’t really factor into the plot until the third act. Until then, the film is more or less about the characters getting gradually squeezed in such a way that stealing the diamond appears increasingly easy and walking away from the opportunity gets increasingly hard. So it’s really more of a character-driven romantic dramedy.

The good news is, the film legitimately is both dramatic and comical. It certainly helps that the cast is so impressively overqualified that even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Zoom call cameo roles make a lasting impression.

But really, the two most prominent cast members by a wide fucking margin are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. Their chemistry together is on point, Ejiofor’s got more than enough angst and charisma to burn, and Anne Hathaway is ON FIRE here. No joke, she’s got at least two or three monologues in this picture that are goddamn barn-burners.

Put simply, Paxton and Linda are two tired people looking down the barrel of middle-age burnout. Life hasn’t worked out the way they wanted, their wild younger days are taking their toll, and they’re in the terrifying process of re-evaluating their lives, trying to figure out who they want to be and what they want to do moving forward.

In ordinary times, all of this would be mundane stuff that would make for a tired and mediocre film. But in the COVID era, the pandemic has heightened all these issues to a terrifying and unprecedented degree.

The question of fate versus free will — whether it’s a higher power shitting all over us or whether we make our own problems — takes on a whole new dimension in a time when humanity is threatened by climate change and a highly contagious plague. The question of what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives takes on greater urgency with the knowledge that any one of us might not live to see the end of this, and hundreds of thousands are already dead.

It’s bad enough to see the rich getting richer while everyone else gets poorer. But to see it happen during a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor and middle class… well, imagine seeing that while you’re in a position to steal a diamond worth three million pounds.

Yes, the film does go into all the various minutiae about Zoom calls, wearing masks, stocking up on toilet paper, and all the other COVID-era quirks that umpteen internet videos and late-night comedians have already rendered passe. Yes, this film is utterly useless as the kind of escapism so many of us so badly need right now. And yet, I have to give the filmmakers credit for finding all the creative ways in which COVID-specific quirks elevate what would otherwise be an unremarkable picture.

Seriously, this is a time in which everyone is wearing masks and gloves, everything is shutting down, nobody’s on the streets, and keeping distance is encouraged. What better time to make a goddamn heist movie?!

And yet, for all the pathos and character drama going on, I must emphatically stress that this is also a comedy. Because really, it has to be. For one thing, this is a story about two wildly unqualified people playing amateur thieves for a take worth three million pounds. There’s no way to play that completely straight.

For another thing — again, as numerous internet videos and late-night comedians have already pointed out — there is so much about the COVID era that’s darkly humorous. Please forgive me if I don’t elaborate on the point, but it feels like we’ve all been commiserating and chuckling over the same gallows humor for the past ten months.

The difference, of course, is that the same tired jokes are being delivered via world-class actors with dialogue that flies right off the page.

I realize that Locked Down won’t be everyone’s cup of tea right now. I know we’re all sick to death of living in something that should’ve damn well been sorted out by now (and pretty much is, in a select few nations) and I’m sure there are a great many among us who aren’t ready for a lighthearted film about the COVID pandemic. That’s totally fine.

But personally, I had a delightful time with this movie. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it makes quite a few solid artistic statements that could only be possible during the COVID times. Hell, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway are more than enough to make the film worth anyone’s time.

It’s not a masterpiece — the plot certainly thins in places, and a lot of wonderful actors are underused — but in a time when any collaborative artistic endeavor has been made borderline impossible, even the bare minimum is quite an accomplishment. This one gets a recommendation.

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