“Well, that was… interesting” is about how I felt after watching the HBO Max original film, Locked Down. This wasn’t exactly the reaction to this movie that I’d hoped for, given that it’s the first mainstream Hollywood production about the COVID-19 pandemic. I was surprised, and a little disappointed – it seemed promising, with lead characters played by Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway and Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, along with a roster of other big names including Ben Stiller, Mark Gatiss, Ben Kingsley, and Mindy Kaling.
Locked Down follows Paxton (Ejiofor) and Linda (Hathaway), a long-time couple who recently ended their relationship, only to find themselves forced together again once Britain goes into lockdown. While they each experience work-related struggles — Linda having to fire her team while feeling crushed by her understanding that the company she works for is evil, and Paxton being employed by a delivery service under a fake name to get around his criminal charge of a decade ago — they undergo constant introspection as they complain about the challenges of pandemic life in their large, chic London brownstone. They reminisce about the “bad old days” as Paxton tries to sell his beloved motorcycle, Zoom freezes abide, angry Londoners spout obnoxious insults at each other while waiting in line, and Paxton occasionally reads poetry to the neighborhood in the middle of the night. After an hour of this, the plot emerges when Linda and Paxton realize that they have been tasked with operating the transportation of a large collection of jewelry. A heist ensues.
This plot is all carried on the backs of a phenomenal cast who provide intriguing performances, despite the lack of development granted to their characters by the script. Hathaway and Ejiofor capture the essence of trapped beasts and the nails-on-a-chalkboard frustration of being stuck seemingly endlessly with someone you can’t stand, and, to a certain degree, not being able to stand themselves. Of particular note in supporting roles are Paxton’s manipulative boss (Ben Kingsley), and the next-up in the corporate ladder of Linda’s company (Ben Stiller).
I found that the most interesting aspect of the movie was the style. Its structure, writing, and even acting feel like they belong in a stage play. Each distinctly divisioned scene holds entrances and exits for characters with deliberate dialogue and frequent monologues. Yet, these seemingly carefully crafted conversations fall short of their intentions, with some emotionally charged scenes coming across abrasive and unnecessary. Even the film’s variety of witty lines and scenes are unable to make up for these lacking areas.
The film is very good at conveying the dreary feeling of being stuck at home, and a large part of this originates in the appearance. Throughout, the camera always feels very cramped, lending a claustrophobic feeling of seeing the same set of walls all day, every day. To develop the bleak atmosphere, the movie often implements dim and muted lighting, from the grey darkness of storm clouds to dull artificial lighting in rooms with few windows.
All together, Locked Down provides an experience that is thoroughly underwhelming, if not wholly forgettable. Its (mostly) poor writing has some counterbalancing through its talented actors and its ability to achieve a specific tone. In representing pandemic life, it portrays a consequential topic in a very inconsequential way, showing the mostly risk-free struggles of a firmly upper-middle class household. Nevertheless, Locked Down delivers an accurate analogy for lockdown: a cast stuck within the walls of a film that feels longer than its two hours.