Written by: Joe Lollo
Significant moments in history are always immortalized through film, and we can expect that to hold true for the COVID-19 pandemic. After the first stay-at-home order last March, American studios had to adapt quickly to keep pumping out content, and one tactic was incorporating coronavirus into the stories they were telling.
Coronavirus-era entertainment rapidly evolved from Zoom cast reunions and hastily filmed season finales to in-person productions that either show life as normal or haphazardly reflect the current times. These stories have either been set in the early days of the pandemic or elevated it to a catastrophic event still occurring years from now.
Though some early-days shows have been comforting, they’ve tried to reflect on the situation while it was still ongoing: two good examples are Netflix’s Social Distance and Death to 2020, which came out when vaccines were still in the trial phases and governments were still unclear on how to treat the virus. Locked Down, HBO Max’s first 2021 original, looks at the pandemic with more distance – it’s not trying to comfort the audience about the virus, but it creates an entertaining story using the virus as simply a minor backdrop.
The film takes place in the early days of the pandemic, during the U.K.’s initial stay-at-home order. Everyone except essential workers are confined to their houses, including the film’s central couple – fashion CEO Linda (Anne Hathaway) and job-hopping poet Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Linda has just broken up with Paxton, but they’re self-isolating together out of necessity – Paxton is on furlough from his courier job and Linda is working remotely. The bulk of the film shows them struggling with the complete upheaval of their daily routines and a lot of time spent together in a confined space. Rather than being depressing or overly nihilistic, Locked Down fills the situation with lighthearted, honest humor and slight absurdity which, combined with the distance from the beginning of the pandemic, makes the film the best coronavirus-related piece of media to come out so far.
The biggest difference between Locked Down and previous coronavirus-related media is that it doesn’t have to comfort its audience. Most coronavirus media so far has served either as an escape from daily pandemic life, or a case study of how to get through it. This movie was filmed in September and October under strict coronavirus protocols and is being released into a world with a viable vaccine, with tangible evidence that the pandemic will be over someday.
Instead of the earnestness and “we can get through this” pathos, the film reflects the dark side of self-isolating: the drinking, uncertainty, and complaining. The broadly familiar references to unnecessary Zoom meetings and bread-baking are funnier now than they would have been in March.
At the beginning of the film, Linda and Paxton are obviously miserable and struggling to just get through each day. Paxton has been spending his furlough venting to relatives on FaceTime and going out into the street to perform poetry for his neighbors, who either enjoy it or curse at him.
Linda is still employed as CEO of a division of a sketchy conglomerate, but she’s crumbling under the ethical demands of the job, including having to fire coworkers. Through a series of coincidences over a week’s time, Linda and Paxton end up with access to Harrods department store, and a plan to steal a £3 million diamond and quit their miserable jobs.
It’s an absurd setup, but the plot shenanigans fit with the film’s vibe of personal anguish managed during the chaos, heightened by elevated language and a bit of farce that leads to Paxton assuming a false identity as “Edgar Allan Poe.”
Written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and directed by Doug Liman, Locked Down has the heightened language of a play, suffused with dry British humor and a bit of nihilism. With Liman’s direction, the state of the leads’ relationship, and their chemistry together, drives the film as much as the heist elements, similar to his previous films Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow.
Hathaway and Ejiofor give excellent performances, especially Hathaway, who expertly handles Linda’s gradual unraveling. The rest of the cast, mostly appearing via video-conference, includes Ben Stiller, Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling, and Ben Kingsley, though there are a few more strong cast surprises.
Though the supporting cast provides most of the film’s comedy, the best scenes come from the conversations between Linda and Paxton. Spurred by the extra time to think during the lockdown, both characters take a good look at their lives and realize that they hate where they’ve ended up. Linda doesn’t catastrophize as much as Paxton at first — Knight’s script implies that she’s had to be the adult in the room since initiating their breakup — but they both want to change their stations in life, approaching a wish for freedom from their circumstances.
Knight and Liman don’t offer much information about how they got to this point in their lives, beyond bare-bones confirmation of how they met, and how long they’ve been together. But the blank spaces add a little universal flavor to the story, even as these specific characters go from a moderately familiar scenario (let’s just avoid each other in the house) to an outlandish one. (Let’s rob Harrods!)
The department store (for my Americans: Harrods is just British Nordstrom) heist portion of this romance/heist/comedy thing is condensed into the last 40 minutes of the film, and it’s worth spending the first 80 minutes wondering whether it will ever actually happen. The tone shift never really happens, and the heist portion is just as fun as the rest of it as the tension stays at the same level, even when the leads transition from a duo at odds to a team.
The heist segment also features the most romantic moments between the couple features most of the movie’s big humor contains the most physical humor in the movie, with both the characters and the direction reveling in the switch from confinement to a free space. It’s just a delight to watch.
The cinematography stays tight on Hathaway and Ejiofor throughout the film, which Liman shoots mostly with close-ups and tracking shots, mirroring the leads’ confinement to their house. Keeping the angles close lets Liman keep the tension high, though he finally allows some wide shots once the film moves to Harrods. These choices bring a sense of claustrophobia to each scene, making the characters’ anguish more of a setting than the actual house they live in.
The lighting also builds on the psychological sense of confinement, with most of the scenes filmed with low or indoor light. Even the soundtrack gives the film a sense of suspended time: ska classic “Ghost Town” by The Specials played while Ejiofor’s Paxton is driving around his neighborhood hits surprisingly hard because of the lyrics about an isolated society, but Anne Hathaway’s Linda dancing and singing along to Adam and the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver” to let some stress out before the heist is an unexpected joy and a good way to segue into the duo’s next antics.
Locked Down doesn’t fit into an easy genre categorization. It’s a realistic enough depiction of how people fought, laughed, and cried amid the confusion and lack of routine in the early days of the pandemic. The film’s value on its day of release comes from recognition of all the shared circumstances of the pandemic that haven’t been spoken aloud yet.
After a year of trying to stay positive, laughing along to sarcasm and self-woe is a release. The film also meets the goal of immortalization; of all the pandemic media released over the last 10 months, people will likely return to this film as the most realistic depiction of the early days of coronavirus.
Beyond that, it’s also a dark comedy, a post-breakup exploration, and a relatively low-stakes heist film. All of that takes place in a very real-world situation, but it infuses the situation with a small amount of levity and absurdity. It’s an ambitious story that recognizes that it takes place in a society where all the typical rules have been turned on its head, and normal’s gone out of the window. It isn’t comforting, but it’s a model for the inevitable future coronavirus movies to come.