Locke and Calvary – The rise of the literate screenplay


When is a film not a film?  When it’s a play on words.  I’ve just seen a beautifully written film – and yet it could have been a play – as it revels in language in a way we usually identify with radio or theatre.  Locke is an intense, poetic and visual movie that relies on words for its main impact.

In Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight , our anti-hero (played by Tom Hardy) is trapped behind the wheel of a car for 90 minutes.  The drama occurs not through action but through a series of dialogues – not even face to face but on the phone. The only physical action he takes is driving.


Tom Hardy is the draw here but it was not his face – expressive though that is – that stayed with me. It was his voice, his thoughts that moved me – that and the gap between what he said while his face betrayed how he really felt.

When Locke does take action and make decisions he does it through language. Words are the prime dramatic currency of Locke and the story is none the poorer for it.  The writing has a dense yet lyrical quality – not for nothing did Tom Hardy listen to Richard Burton reciting Under Milkwood to prepare for this (the likeness is uncanny).  The visual metaphors are not on screen but are created in the dialogue.


Locke also observes the three unities of place, time and action, so it really could be a play.  In the end does it matter?

With the multi-platform, multi-media way in which we consume creative content, are these boundaries forever blurred?  While the studios chase global success with tent pole spectaculars using as few words as possible, the real audience is viewing online in the revolution that has allowed high-end intelligent drama series and movies to go viral – to go global. It is a mistake to assume audiences don’t enjoy language – wit, irony, deep emotions, the pleasures of thought and moral complication.  For Netflix and co, prestige drama series are now the premium content that people will pay for.  As the writer’s dominance in television and online drama drives the quality of scripts skywards, is there also a resurgence of the writer – and dare we say it of drama vs genre movies –  in low to mid-budget feature films?

It is the marriage of great script and great actor that audiences are drawn to.  The skills of the director are at the service of the writing and are the invisible, traditional – and often underrated – ones of interpreting the material, getting great performances, as well as expressing the visual world the characters inhabit.


Calvary written and directed by Michael McDonagh, is another example of a great, writer-driven film – funny, literate, dark storytelling  powered by great dialogue that celebrates word play and the interrogation of received ideas.  The story and characters may borrow from the Western but the execution is resolutely Irish in its love of language.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

As film writers we are often (rightly) discouraged from using dialogue at the expense of the active and visual.  And there are wonderfully cine-literate screenplays that have hardly any dialogue at all.  Yet a cinema that celebrates and explores ideas and self-expression through language surely raises everyone’s game.

How do you use dialogue in your scripts? And which writers do you admire for their use of language?

Leave your comments here or you can find me on twitter @emlin32




7 thoughts on “Locke and Calvary – The rise of the literate screenplay

  1. Emma,
    I wish American filmmakers had the same appreciation and love of language the Brits have. After seeing “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” on the big screen, and several times again on FX, I’ve become an admirer of Steven Zaillian. As far as my own writing, I have one script to speak of, still in progress. I completed the first draft in February, and I’m a little less than a third of the way through the first rewrite. I don’t have the command of language some writers have, so it’s a slow process, often with my head buried in thesaurus and dictionary. I try to think in terms of subtext. The trick is not to make it seem contrived and artificial, and to keep it coming. Trying to hold the attention of an audience with dialogue, particularly one accustomed to non-stop crashes and explosions, presents a challenge. I think it’s one worth accepting.

    • That’s interesting. I am slow too. I write dialogue and then cut as much as I can of it the next day to keep things moving but I admire writers who can use it with a flourish!

  2. Really interesting post. I’ve seen both these films and loved them both for the reasons you identify. As a viewer, I tend to prefer films that are thought-provoking and use language as an essential part of the story-telling. In recent years, there have been a number of dramas on TV where the dialogue has been so pared down as to make them more or less incomprehensible – to me at any rate. At the end of the day, human beings do generally communicate by talking to each other!

  3. Really enjoyed this, Emma. God, I love words and it’s good to hear a voice standing up for language in film – not quite in the wilderness, but walking out of it – if you get my drift…

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