Saturday, 10 January 2015

Locke: a classic gem

Occasionally, one comes across a real little gem on TV (and I should say in passing that Netflix is good at producing them).

The latest we’ve watched is a TV-length film, Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight. No, nothing to do with the philosopher. In fact, the eponymous protagonist, played with fine self-restraint by Tom Hardy, is a construction director, on the eve of the greatest “concrete-pour” Europe has ever known. And he’s leaving his post in charge of this historic event…

Locke: short but classically perfect
What makes it a gem? It reminded me of so much from my long-distant student past. I studied French, and therefore, in particular, the drama of the seventeenth century, and its preoccupation with observing the canons of classical theatre. The unities, for instance, of place and time and plot. And the carefully prescribed elements of tragedy.

Tragedy,” explains Aristotle in the Poetics, the authority on these matters, is an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity and fear. Such incidents have the very greatest effect on the mind when they occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another; there is more of the marvellous in them then than if they happened of themselves or by mere chance. Even matters of chance seem most marvellous if there is an appearance of design as it were in them; as for instance when the statue of Mitys at Argos killed the author of Mitys’ death by falling down on him when a looker-on at a public spectacle; for incidents like that we think to be not without a meaning. A Plot, therefore, of this sort is necessarily finer than others.

Locke gives us all of this.

The unities are all about plausibility. How can an audience be expected to believe that several years have passed, when they’ve been siting in their seats for only an hour or two? The seventeenth century in fact took a bit of a liberty: the action could be stretched to twenty-four hours and still respect the unity of time, but no more. Locke does far better: it occurs as near as possible in real time – it lasts an hour and a half and shows us an hour and half of a man’s life.

Similarly, the unity of place was designed to limit the need for suspension of disbelief, by not constantly moving the setting of the action. None of the brutal, anarchic shifting around the place as in that uncouth Shakespeare: you couldn’t have a play start in a Royal Palace, continue at Southampton as the King prepares to cross the Channel with his army, and culminate in a muddy field near Agincourt in Northern France. Now Locke handles this unity cleverly: we travel from the English Midlands to London, but always in the protagonist’s car.

Finally, Locke majestically maintains unity of plot: the focus is entirely on Locke, as his life gradually unravels before our eyes, from one mobile phone call to the next.

And those calls? Exactly the components of tragedy for Aristotle: incidents that occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one other. Locke is a man who made a mistake but is true to himself. It is that mistake and his unbending commitment to the principle that he will make it right that will destroy him. There is indeed even a sense that his fate is in his genes, as he explains to his absent, dead father that he has no intention of behaving in the same shameful way, even at the cost this will inevitably inflict on him.

So we sit and watch his destiny grind out stolidly, imperturbably, inescapably, event by event, call by call. Our fear and pity mount for the man who cannot escape the effects of the machine he himself set going. Like Mitys’ murderer killed by Mitys’ statue, one event linked to the other, he is being crushed by its inexorable logic.

Just an hour and a half. A real gem for anyone who might enjoy the classic canons applied, with freshness and intelligence, in a modern setting.

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