Locke: costume, character and cracks

21 May

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I love characters who are not what they seem. In Locke (2013) Tom Hardy delivers a virtuoso turn as a man whose identity crumbles as he drives down the M6 from Birmingham to London, leaving behind the job and family that have defined him for years, to be present at the birth of his child by a woman he hardly knows. Apparently a responsible parent, husband and boss, on his fateful journey construction engineer Ivan Locke is assailed by his demons, revealing a deeply divided personality. Steven Knight’s beautifully executed film has a noir look and feel, exposing cracks in the façade of masculinity. Cracks are something Locke fears: if the concrete mix for his mega-construction isn’t just right, the building will tumble …

Concrete is the subtext for Locke, and Hardy’s performance provides the drama. In this one-man show that takes place almost entirely in the confines of a car, costume does not immediately stand out as a distinctive feature. But together with the effects created by the Red Epic digital cameras, which enmesh our hero in a shimmering, chimerical landscape, the costume design by Nigel Egerton and make-up design by Audrey Doyle (make-up artist for Hardy’s upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road) unpick the threads that hold together this solid family man.

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Facial hair

Locke has a bushy, untrimmed beard. OK, facial hair isn’t strictly costume. Nor is it exactly a prosthetic or make-up. It is, though, an essential element in portraying character. Hardy’s facial hair disguises his handsome, film-star looks and gives Locke the appearance of ordinariness, maturity and reliability. Beards are also a form of masquerade, concealing identity. As Locke and other people heard in the film remark, his behaviour in fleeing to London is uncharacteristic. It’s almost as though he’s on the run.

Boots

At the start of the film there’s a brief scene in which a man in builder’s gear (who turns out to be Locke) walks away from the construction site to get into his BMW. He’s wearing a standard helmet, yellow safety jacket and boots encrusted with dirt. He looks like any builder making his way home after a day’s graft. He removes his boots before getting into the car, and when we next see Locke inside the vehicle the helmet and safety jacket have also gone. It’s a tiny gesture, but the removal of the boots is significant. Later, in a telephone exchange with his angry wife (Ruth Wilson), she reminds him of the years she’s spent cleaning the concrete residue from his boots ingrained in their kitchen floor. Apparently he’s not as sensitive about her environment as he is about his car. 

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Wristwear and jewellery

Locke wears two bracelets, emblems of his integrity. They both signify charities: Help for Heroes (for which Locke displays a car sticker) and The Prince’s Trust, which Hardy also supports. Together with his wedding ring they indicate the caring, concerned persona he projects to the world. This persona is stripped away as his anger and violence surface in his imaginary conversations with his dead father. Locke is both damaged and driven to inflict damage – not a good omen for his flagship construction project. The bracelets seem to be there to ward off danger and hurt, to deflect victimisation on to others. At the same time, they are a troubling intimation of his destructive inclinations.

The checked shirt

Locke’s checked shirt is a brilliant touch. He wears it under a naval sweater that Hardy claims to have chosen himself. It’s open-necked and the sleeves are rolled up. The actor draws attention to the rolled up sleeves by using a repetitive gesture, pushing them up his arms as he drives. The grid pattern on the shirt is reminiscent of graph paper, suggesting structure, planning and equilibrium. The rolled-up sleeves indicate Locke’s readiness to get to work, solve problems, put the world to rights. Yet the repeated gesture of pushing up his sleeves is almost compulsive, a desperate, anxious response to the chaos his actions have unleashed. The open collar evokes vulnerability and the crumpled fabric of the shirt points to the collapse of structure and stability.

The naval sweater

Locke wears a dark-brown chunky sweater over his shirt. As with the shirt, the straight lines of its cable-knit pattern are rumpled and broken. For Hardy, the sweater contributed to the sense that Locke was trying to hold things together in a difficult situation. Its earthy colour and bulky texture signify Locke’s connection to solid ground; however, it’s difficult to avoid the connection between the sweater and Locke’s feckless dead father, whom he hates with a vengeance but with whom he also identifies. Ranting and railing against his father, he threatens to dig him up and inflict terrible violence on him. It becomes clear during this tirade that Locke has unearthed his father within himself. The sweater is like a pile of soil under which he’s buried his true self.

Costume in Locke is minimal, but together with performance it plays a crucial role in a brilliant character study that creates compelling drama from the breakdown of character itself.

© Pam Cook

Further information on ‘Locke’

Lionsgate production notes

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Why Change Your Wife? (1920) at BEV 2014

13 Apr

BFI Southbank was abuzz on 10 April for the BEV festival screening of Why Change Your Wife?, featuring a superb live score created and performed on stage by the Niki King Jazz Quintet. The film, shown in sparkling digital transfer, is a witty marital comedy starring Gloria Swanson as newly married Beth, who is determined to improve her husband Robert’s mind. He (Thomas Meighan) would rather pursue other pleasures with her — such as dancing the foxtrot.

Gloria Swanson as Beth

Gloria Swanson as Beth

Beth doesn’t care about style. She dresses down and wears reading glasses. She introduces Robert to serious music — a performance by virtuoso Russian violinist Radinioff (Russian ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff), who turns out to be something of a Lothario.

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To spice up their love life, Robert goes shopping to buy clothes he hopes will change his wife into the vamp he would prefer her to be. In the Maison Chic he is surrounded by women draped in exotic orientalised gowns and shoes and accessories that leave him bewildered and excited.

Thomas Meighan as Robert

Thomas Meighan as Robert

At the gown emporium he meets model Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels), who sets her sights on him even though she finds out that he’s married. Sally is aware of her charms and has no compunctions about using them to snare her quarry.

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Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Robert resists her advances and ends up buying a revealing negligee for Beth, but she is horrified and refuses to wear it without underclothes. Sally visits Robert at his office on the pretext of returning something he left at the shop. Just at this moment, Beth turns down her husband’s invitation to a show because she wants to attend a more highbrow event, and Sally and Robert go to the show together. At her apartment later, as Beth waits for Robert at home, Sally tries to seduce him and they dance the foxtrot. Beth is upset when Robert gets home late and they quarrel. The rift gets worse and Robert decides to divorce Beth and marry Sally. Stung by gossip that her lack of clothes sense drove her husband away, Beth decides to acquire a new wardrobe.

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Her makeover is dramatic. On holiday at a luxury spa with her Aunt Kate (Sylvia Ashton) she shows off her new bathing attire, complete with  bejewelled sandals and daring leg bracelet worn below the knee. Her revamp is a magnet for the male guests, including ex-husband Robert, who is at the spa with new wife Sally. When Robert is clearly attracted to Beth, Sally flirts with Radinioff, who is also at the spa (wearing a revealing bathing suit himself) and has pursued Beth. Beth and Robert independently decide to leave, ending up on the same train. Back in the city, when Robert slips on a banana skin and is knocked out, Beth arranges for him to be taken to her place to recover. He cannot be moved for 24 hours, so Beth telephones Sally to let her know. A jealous Sally insists on taking him back home, at which point the film appears to tip over into revenge melodrama. Beth threatens Sally with a vial of acid, whereupon Sally attacks Beth, breaking a mirror, and throws the acid in her face.

Beth is attacked by Sally

Beth is attacked by Sally

In a brilliant comic reversal, the acid turns out to be eye wash (Beth was bluffing). But the brief foray into violence and melodrama is telling: there’s a moral there somewhere about the consequences of investing too much in appearance. Sally leaves and Robert is reconciled with Beth. They remarry and in their new home Beth wears her glamorous bohemian wardrobe and dances the foxtrot with Robert. Why change your wife when she can change so you don’t have to?

Why Change Your Wife?  is a delight. A Gloria Swanson vehicle, it plays with the star’s reputation as leader of style and fashion. Clearly aimed at the female audiences who were so significant in the 1920s, it not only puts costume design on display but also at the heart of the narrative. The numerous close-ups of fashionable items of clothing eroticise shoes and accessories to create fetish objects that capture the eye and the heart and awaken libidinous desire.

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This highlights the tie-ins that operated between film and fashion in the teens and twenties — department stores were often involved in promoting movies, frequently hosting fashion shows. The costumes are a tour de force, designed by Clare West and Natacha Rambova, who was probably responsible for the exotic extravagance of the fashionable gowns. Rambova, a protégée of Theodore Kosloff, was known for her bohemian elegance. She worked on other Cecil B. DeMille productions and went on to become a leading costume and set designer, working with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino on prestigious art productions. Costume adds so much to the film — sometimes the designs are so over the top they are comic in themselves, satirising women’s attachment to fashion and cinema’s exploitation of it. 

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The costumes also send up the vogue for orientalism and the female types in circulation at the time. In spite of her transformation into a vamp, Beth is unable to behave like one and remains a good wife — albeit one who is capable of using deceit to get her way. At the end, a compromise is reached and Beth emerges as a domesticated version of the vamp. The somewhat unstable resolution reminds all wives they should remember to be sweethearts sometimes — but not before a lot of fun at the expense of marriage is had on the way. 

A very enjoyable experience — thank you BEV 2014 and the Niki King Jazz Quintet!

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© Pam Cook

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Fashion film: performing boundaries of identity

10 Dec

http://www.drama-magazine.com

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10 Jul

The Great Gatsby visual effects reel

27 Jun

VFX supervisor Chris Godfrey releases a show reel for The Great Gatsby, courtesy of Animal Logic.

Within and without: The Great Gatsby’s 3D experience

2 Jun

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Baz Luhrmann’s aesthetic is the opposite of slow cinema. Rather than a contemplative experience, the audience gets a demonstrative display of vertiginous camera movement, fast editing and busy visual design that makes it hard to keep up. Even intimate scenes are loaded with distracting detail, so that the eye can’t rest for long. This is Luhrmann’s vision of modernity – it moves so fast you’re in danger of being left behind. The technique is assaultive and didactic, exhibitionism taken to extremes. ‘I want to show you something’, Gatsby says to Daisy before he reveals his scrapbook dedicated to her. This could be Luhrmann’s credo.

But the razzmatazz is not simply about dazzling with technique. There are technical set-pieces, but they’re thematically integrated and tied to character, which differentiates Luhrmann’s work from special effects extravaganzas in which the visual effects stand alone. Luhrmann’s films put technology at the service of story-telling and emotional affect - The Great Gatsby is no different: it uses 3D technology as a dramatic device. One of the virtuoso 3D set-pieces is the car ride in which Gatsby drives Nick in his flashy yellow vehicle across the bridge into the city, careering madly at hair-raising speed with the camera in impossible positions – in the middle of the road, on the bonnet, below the bumper, in the passenger seat, travelling on the running board or in mid-air. Fast editing contributes to the sense of speed and excitement as well as evoking the social turmoil of the period.

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In this sequence the death-defying driving alternates with personal exchanges in which Gatsby tries to impress Nick with his fabricated life story. If the 3D aspires to put the viewer in the scene during the driving, provoking a visceral response, in the conversations between the two men the windscreen acts as a barrier that creates a distance. The viewer is aligned with eternal watcher Nick, oscillating between inside and outside. Nick describes himself as ‘Within and without … enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’.

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Barriers are created in other scenes too, denying the illusion given by 3D that viewers can touch actors and objects. Characters are positioned behind windows, the scene behind them obscure. In some cases the effect is like a pop-up book, lining up planes of vision, recalling the beginning of Moulin Rouge! (2001).

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THE GREAT GATSBY

The strategy of denying the viewer the illusion of touching is central to the story and Gatsby’s doomed desire to touch the green light and realise his dream of possessing Daisy. It transmits a powerful sense of loss: like Gatsby, we reach out to grasp something unattainable. And it intensifies the contradiction at the heart of cinema: the sense viewers have of being there yet being absent.

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Characteristically, Luhrmann and co’s innovative use of 3D reflects on the way viewers are implicated in the viewing experience as well as encapsulating Fitzgerald’s devastating critique of the American Dream. Delve beneath the show-stopping effects and you find cinematic gold.

© Pam Cook

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