A tour de force, and a tour down British motorways in the dead of night, Locke stars Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a man in a BMW, on his Bluetooth, trying to keep the pieces of his life from flying apart.

That is the sum of writer/director Steven Knight's movie: a man, a car, a hands-free mobile device. And it is extraordinary.

Unfolding in real time, Locke finds its title character - a site manager on the biggest construction project of his career, and one of the biggest in Europe - heading from Birmingham, where he lives, to London, where a woman lies alone in a hospital room, waiting.

Locke is a list-maker, a pragmatist, as solid as the foundations of his skyscrapers. The first thing he must do, after climbing in his SUV and on-ramping the M-1, is call his boss (the voice of Andrew Scott) and tell him he won't be there in the morning - the absolutely essential morning when the concrete will be poured for the base of a tower going up in the heart of the city. It's like an ace surgeon begging off an operation planned for months. Or a general excusing himself from the battle that will decide the war.

Locke knows he's going to be fired - right then, on the phone - but he's not shirking his responsibilities. He's giving his second-in-command (his next call, the jittery voice of Ben Daniels) a long list of must-dos: how to ensure the grade of concrete, street closures for the giant mixers, a hundred details, numbers, contacts. Locke is going to talk him through it.

Then there's his family. His wife and two sons are expecting him home to watch a football match. To the boys (Tom Holland, Bill Milner), he simply says he will not be there. To his wife (the voice of Ruth Wilson), he has much more to say. The news will shatter her.

And Bethan (Olivia Colman), the woman in the hospital? Locke hardly knows her, but he knows he has to be there. It is the right thing to do, he tells himself.

Deploying a soft Welsh burr that calls to mind Richard Burton, Hardy is a revelation. In The Dark Knight Rises, he was the uber-terrorist Bane, his face concealed by a clawlike bondage mask, his voice digitally modulated. Apart from the brute physicality he projected, it was a complete waste of the actor's talents. In Locke, it's the opposite: There's not much you can do with your body behind the wheel of a car; it's all in the face, the voice. Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, has found his man in Hardy, and - with only one or two fleeting exceptions - the director keeps his star working in the measured, compartmentalized ways of this Ivan Locke fellow.

Locke has the power of great theater, as the actor engages with disembodied voices of the people in his life, as he soliloquizes, raging against his dead dad (shades of Hamlet).

But Locke also has the power of great film. The lights of cars, streetlights and signs, dashboard dials and screens reflect and refract, ricocheting in a hypnotic swirl. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos knows his stuff.

Like Gravity, Locke is a space movie - a confined-space movie, that is. And like All Is Lost, it is about one man, alone, struggling to survive. In Locke, however, the protagonist is contending not with the forces of nature, but with the forces of human nature. They can be brutal.




Locke ****  (Out of four stars)

Directed by Steven Knight. With Tom Hardy, and the voices of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland. Distributed by a24.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz East.