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‘Locked Down’ is a reminder of how wrong we were at the start of the pandemic

Jan. 28, 2021 Updated Thu., Jan. 28, 2021 at 11:10 a.m.

Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Locked Down.”  ( Susan Allnutt/HBO Max)
Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Locked Down.” ( Susan Allnutt/HBO Max)
By Alyssa Rosenberg Washington Post

Attractive movie stars, plus a plan to steal a big diamond, plus a fancy department store sounds like a recipe for great escapist fantasy. But “Locked Down,” released this month, is unpleasant to watch not merely because of its tasteless suggestion that a stay-at-home order is a good time to revitalize a flagging relationship through grand larceny. It’s what the movie shows viewers about our collective early response to the pandemic that makes it truly difficult to watch.

The film follows Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a couple who were about to break up when a stay-at-home order forced them to stay in the same house. The pair hatch a scheme to steal a diamond that Linda’s company had on display at Harrods, assuming they’ll split the money and go their separate ways – only to find the caper reigniting their spark.

If “Locked Down” had been released in an alternate-universe January in which the pandemic was successfully defeated, the characters’ plight – and intense self-pity – may have inspired a chuckle of familiarity instead of hollow laughter.

But anyone watching at home knows, as Linda and Paxton don’t, what is looming: the refrigerator trucks full of bodies and the miles of cars full of people lined up for food assistance or COVID-19 tests, the rage-filled obituaries and lists of names of the dead. Staying in for two weeks with an ex might be an annoyance. Being trapped for months without access to an education or a job is much worse.

Watching Linda bang pans in the garden as part of a clanking chorus meant to support health care workers or hearing Paxton lament “the flames of burning aloneness” after mere weeks now inspires more embarrassment than sympathy. It’s clear how futile the gestures of solidarity were, how little people were accustomed to sacrificing for the common good.

And it’s uncomfortable to reflect on how much easier it was to take the pandemic a few weeks at a time than to accept the enormity given how that mindset contributed to an uneven vaccine rollout and the disastrous decision to prioritize reopening bars and retail over schools.

“Locked Down” also casts an unflattering light on efforts to make quarantine bearable by turning it into a moment for self-improvement. Remember those runs on kettlebells and all-purpose flour, the suggestion that we might use lockdown to start journaling for the sake of history and even spark a baby boom?

In “Locked Down,” Linda suggests that “a complete reexamination of one’s life seems to be a COVID symptom.” Paxton wanders the streets urging the neighbors to “use these strange times to steal all the things you think life owes you,” advice the duo take a little too literally.

How stupid the idea of lockdown as an extended New Year’s resolution looks now with more than 2 million dead of COVID-19, not to mention the long-forgotten sourdough starters. There’s nothing wrong with coping mechanisms, but there’s no opportunity that’s worth the cost the pandemic has inflicted. Draping a yoga mat over a skull might hide the specter of death for a moment, but it doesn’t make the skull go away.

The one concession “Locked Down” makes to the reality of the pandemic is its treatment of masks. Even then, the memories it prompts are disturbing. Maskless people are everywhere in the movie: making deliveries, standing in grocery lines and working security at Harrods.

It’s impossible not to imagine every single one of them as in terrible danger. Watching Paxton tie a bandanna loosely around his face or seeing Linda constantly pulling her mask down mid-heist is queasy, not reassuring. Getting away with a zillion-dollar diamond only does them so much good if they end up on ventilators.

Wondering whether the couple will dodge the police and the coronavirus casts an unnerving light on the risks that we were all exposed to in the spring – and that too many did not survive. The makeshift masks that proliferated in early days – and worse, the reassurances that ordinary citizens didn’t really need masks at all – now look as futile as the Black Death-era reliance on the bones of St. Agatha for protection.

A clear-eyed analysis of where the world went wrong in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic is a vital exercise. “Locked Down” doesn’t provide much in the way of entertainment. But the retrospective shame and anxiety the movie provokes could make it a useful historical document in that reckoning.

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