For a World War II epic, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) is remarkably compact. The action depicts one event — it’s hard to call it a battle, really — and famously, the film uses a tripartite chronological structure that converges in a climactic moment that brings the three story timelines together. Nolan’s frequent collaborator, Tom Hardy, plays a crucial role as a British fighter pilot, Farrier, in the story’s convergent moment.
Dunkirk has many defining features. Unlike many war films before it, the film is a deep exploration of human cowardice, from which very few of its characters are excepted. Hardy’s Farrier is one of those exceptions; it is his bravery that the film hinges on, a point underlined by one of the film’s final images. Farrier stands on the beach, having landed his plane in territory rapidly being taken by the Nazis. Finally, after all this time, Farrier removes his pilot’s mask. Since his introduction, Farrier’s (and Hardy’s) face have been hidden behind the respirator and radio that keep him in touch with his fellow pilots. From the moment he snaps on the mask, the entire conflict at Dunkirk begins, escalates and concludes, all between glimpses of Hardy’s visage.
Nolan’s collapsing of time in Dunkirk is not dissimilar from his interest in manipulations of chronology, stretching back to the feature that launched him, Memento (2001). An auteur analysis of Nolan would yield much evidence of his fascination with this theme. To consider Hardy as a star persona, however, would also demonstrate the actor’s continual reliance on masks as a defining feature of his most iconic performances.
Hardy is an actor of seemingly innumerable performance tics and quirks. He is often both praised and critiqued for his use of unorthodox vocal inflections. His mumbling, deep-throated portrayal of the unscrupulous trapper John Fitzgerald in The Revenant (2015) is at turns compelling and incomprehensible. His mysterious, taciturn Tommy Conlon in Warrior (2011) eschews dialogue in favor of a performance largely built on brute physicality; Conlon is a man carrying so much anger, he refuses to articulate it in language.
But it is Hardy’s use of masks that looms largest. Three of Hardy’s most iconic roles — Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Farrier in Dunkirk — share a prominent characteristic: Hardy’s character is masked for a significant portion of the film. Through the use of masks, Hardy creates characters who are defined by their limitations. Bane’s protective respirator both keeps him alive and obscures the villain’s motivations, making him monstrous and unknowable. Max’s muzzle, affixed by Immortan Joe’s War Boys, emphasizes the character’s relative powerlessness, sidelining him in favor of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the film’s real hero. And Farrier, behind his pilot’s mask, becomes one more anonymous warrior who sacrifices his own security so that others may live.
Collectively, these masks emphasize Hardy’s other performance tools. The limited space of the fighter’s cockpit in Dunkirk means that most of Hardy’s work is done in closeup, with only his eyes and brow visible. Closeups figure strongly into his work as Bane, as well; many of the character’s apocalyptic, grandiose monologues, delivered at Gotham’s football stadium, or on the steps of the courthouse across from Blackgate prison, are shot in closeup. One would expect an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask to use his eyes to dart, to communicate all that is going on inside the character. But, Hardy does not. His eyes are as dead as the mask, as if its cloaking power extended all the way up his face. What results is a performance built entirely on Hardy’s impressive, muscle-bound physique, aided by Nolan’s consistent strategy of shooting him from a low angle. His imposing frame fills each shot with the zealotry that defines Bane’s cause. He has the quiet purpose of someone who believes totally in what he is doing.
The first full, clear shot of Hardy’s face in Mad Max: Fury Road does not appear until the film’s 45-minute mark. In the opening, he is bedraggled and bearded; the War Boys capture, brand and muzzle him. Even Max’s brief escape attempt through the tunnels of the Citadel is framed so tightly and edited so erratically that it’s impossible to really get a good look at him. From the moment the War Boys recapture Max and string him up to serve as Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult) “blood bag,” he is shackled with a metal muzzle that mashes his nose against his face and restricts his expression. While wearing the muzzle, Max has no meaningful dialogue. When the pursuit of Furiosa begins, he is tied to the front of a War Boy’s roadster like a human hood ornament, enraged and helpless.
These closeups unite in what they do not provide. A closeup has long been a quintessential tool for the filmmaker and the actor to reveal something deep about a character. It is in the closeup that the actor bares his or her soul. It is in the closeup that the long emotional journey of a character is finally concluded, rushing forth like water. Hardy’s closeups do not reveal; they conceal.
Standing in stark contrast, then, is a film like Locke (2013, wherein Hardy portrays the title character, Ivan Locke, a construction site manager overseeing a large commercial concrete pour, upon which a skyscraper will stand. Locke has a problem, however — during a one-night stand, he has fathered a child with a woman not his wife, and she is about to give birth to the baby. The film is a tightly controlled, claustrophobic experience, set entirely inside Locke’s car as he makes his way from the construction site to the hospital, about a 90-minute drive up the expressway. Throughout, Locke manages his various responsibilities and obligations through a series of phone conversations, piped in through the car’s Bluetooth capability. He confesses his sins to his wife. He avoids telling the truth to both of his sons. He micromanages the concrete pour’s preparations with his deputy. He does damage control with his boss, who is furious at him for abandoning the job.
In Locke, Hardy is unmasked. He adopts a Welsh accent. He nurses a cold, frequently reaching into the passenger seat for a handkerchief. He is trapped inside the car, heading towards the hospital to face his mistake. The film is propulsive, always in motion, despite the fact that Knight’s camera never moves very far. He finds a number of ways to shoot the action inside the vehicle: traditional shots from the front hood, through the windshield; from the backseat, with Locke’s eyes visible in the rearview mirror; outside the front driver’s side, peering in through the window; from the passenger seat, looking across at Locke’s hands gripping the wheel.
At the center of each shot is Hardy, stripped of the masks that define his most well-known characters. And yet, the conceit is the same. His physicality, so much a feature of his roles in The Dark Knight Rises, Warrior and Bronson (2008), is constricted. The most he can do is reach across the seat to grab a binder full of construction specifications, or pound the steering wheel in anger at himself.
The phone conversations with the other characters are also built upon the foundation of limitation. There is a barrier between Hardy and his scene partners — they are batting the lines back and forth, but the gulf of separation created through their physical distance from one another also extends to the film’s emotional content. In one key moment, when he speaks with his older son, who can tell something is wrong, Locke attempts to hide his tears from the boy. Hardy fights back the emotion with all his might. The viewer, locked in the car with Hardy, knows how he feels, but the other characters do not.
The overall feeling of the film is confinement. The overriding metaphor — Locke’s concrete pour — is quite clear. Locke’s decisions have left his feet rooted in quickly drying cement; he is fast approaching the point where he can no longer run free. However, the concrete metaphor also serves another purpose, conveyed in Locke’s upbraiding of Donal, his deputy. Locke expounds on the importance of precision in pouring concrete, reminding Donal that one mistake in calculation can lead to a crack, which, years later, could bring the entire skyscraper sitting atop the concrete crashing down to the ground. With each choice Locke makes, he further limits his own future. By the film’s conclusion, he has lost his job, lost his wife and lost his home. The film is the story of an ever-tightening set of possibilities, as the opportunities of youth are foreclosed.
Herein, the match of actor to material is extremely well-suited. Hardy’s performative instincts attract him to characters who are in some way limited. In Locke, that limitation is physical, as the character’s mobility is constrained. The car that confines him becomes a centrally contradictory metaphor; in theory, Locke can drive wherever he wants. He can drift the wheel to the right, and take the next exit. But, his sense of responsibility, his desire not to become his father, pushes him on. The road presents boundless choices, but Hardy’s Locke is still bound by one choice. He is theoretically free. But that freedom has limits.
In each of the films where Hardy is masked, the moment where his character’s full face is revealed is crucial. In The Dark Knight Rises, it is when Bane’s nature — protector, rather than monster — is finally demonstrated; before the mask, before the augmented voice, before the villainy, Bane was a man helping to save a little girl escaping from a prison in the desert. It is in this moment that Nolan shows Hardy’s unmasking, as the other prisoners pull off his hood in a struggle. In Mad Max, Miller celebrates Max’s freedom, after he has finished sawing through the lock on his muzzle, with a crashing push-in on Hardy’s face, newly liberated and ready to defend the War Rig. And in Dunkirk, Nolan frames Hardy’s unmasked face against the backdrop of his burning plane, nearly in silhouette against the flames. He stands, unafraid of the Nazis encircling him and about to take him prisoner. In these films, Hardy’s character is only truly revealed at the moment of his unmasking.
In Locke, the revelatory moment is expanded to encompass the entirety of the film’s running time, and — more than any other thing — it reveals the defining feature of Tom Hardy’s performances: the balance between the hidden and the seen. Behind the mask, lurking within the timbre of the vocal choices, buried beneath the shaped physique, there is truth.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.