From Robert Redford on a boat to Tom Hardy in traffic, how solo films took over the screen

Stars have both made films in which they are the sole actor. Who needs co-stars anyway? By Geoffrey Macnab

We are in the most “connected” era in human history. Thanks to digital technology and social media, true solitude is harder than ever to find. It is ironic, then, that so many new films are being made about isolation. There has been a spate of recent “man alone” movies (and one or two “woman alone”) in which protagonists confront the elements, loneliness and their own likely doom, discovering in the process that their smartphones and tablets can't help them when they are cut adrift.

Many of these new films seem at first like traditional “boys' own” stories. JC Chandor's exceptional All Is Lost, featuring Robert Redford as a lone sailor in the Indian ocean whose yacht is slowly sinking, is typical of the genre. Redford is the only actor in the film. A freak accident causes what at first seems like minor damage to his boat. He reacts in sensible, pragmatic fashion but his problems soon multiply. He is out of radio contact and the elements are against him.

Depending on your temperament, you can either take All Is Lost as a seafaring yarn or as an existential allegory about a man confronting his own almost certain death. There is ecstasy as well as dread in his story, a sense that, in extremis, he sees his situation with a clarity that comes from his predicament. Another pleasure of the film is the absence of inane chatter, flashing screens and ring tones. The only speech is a short voice-over early on and an expletive the sailor yells when he's at the end of his tether.

Joe Simpson, the climber whose survival after breaking his leg is chronicled in Kevin Macdonald's film Touching the Void, made it very clear that neither books nor films could capture one essential element of his experience, namely the physical agony.

“You can't remember pain. The brain is very good. If you could remember pain, we'd all be mad. We'd all have one-child families as well,” Simpson suggested. “Where my book falls down, and the film does as well, is that you can't really describe what it feels like to fall repeatedly on a broken leg or what it feels like to be left for dead. You can't articulate the sense of loneliness and dread.”

Movies may touch on this dread but they tend to have a triumphal narrative arc. When mountaineer Aron Ralston (James Franco) cuts off his arm in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, he doesn't bleed to death. Likewise, the reason we know Joe Simpson's story so well is that he made it down the mountain. Simpson claimed that the reason he kept on moving, even on his shattered leg, wasn't because he thought he might live or because he was a strong personality. “It was because I didn't want to die on my own. I wanted someone to hold me when I died.” In other words, it was terror as much as heroism that drove him.

“Man alone” films may struggle to show the pain and fear that their protagonists really feel in their darkest moments. Nonetheless, audiences, often living cosseted city lives themselves, are still fascinated by their stories about heroes in barren wilds.

The flip side to the movies that pit men against nature are the films in which the men are lost not at sea nor in space nor in a desert nor up a mountain but in the heart of Western consumer society itself. Steven Knight's new film Locke stars Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, an engineer driving by night down the motorway in the direction of the hospital at which a woman with whom he had a one-night stand is about to give birth to their baby. Locke is the only character seen in the film. Just as Redford in All Is Lost is trapped in his boat, Locke is never seen outside the interior of the car. He never stops talking, fielding and making call after call from his wife, his work colleagues, his son (who is watching their favourite football team and relaying details of the match) and from the woman in the hospital. Gradually, we become aware that this seemingly self-reliant and very practical man's life is unravelling with each new call he makes. He is about to lose his job and his family. In his way, he is every bit as forlorn as the mountaineers or sailors in other recent “men alone” films.

All by myself: Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’ All by myself: Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’  

Brilliant German actress Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others) starred recently in The Wall, in a very eerie, very solemn and beautifully shot fable about a modern woman trapped on her own in the remote Alpine countryside. There's an invisible wall that stops her ever leaving. She shows formidable survival instincts and even achieves a measure of contentment before her isolation is ended in brutal fashion. Director Roman Pösler treats the outlandish subject matter in a deadpan fashion and leaves us to work out for ourselves just what his film is trying to say. We don't know why this woman is trapped but we still identify with her struggle.

And while it isn't quite a single-hander, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity centres on Sandra Bullock's astronaut alone in space trying to make her way home to Earth after a disaster on her space shuttle. For much of the film, Bullock is entirely on her own.As Cuaron made clear at the film's Venice Festival press conference, his interest was less in the sci-fi elements than in making “a film about adversity” in which the narrative could be stripped down and the main character confronted with a very hostile environment.

All by myself: Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’ All by myself: Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’  

One drawback to movies about men stuck on mountains or lost at sea is that they can risk seeming claustrophobic and inward-looking. There is not much scope for action, romance or witty dialogue when the lead character is confined in a small space. We can become restless and irritated by the variations on the Robinson Crusoe myth that film-makers are currently serving up. On the other hand, the best films about men or women alone have a beautiful simplicity about them. These are invariably stories about a fight for survival. When the stakes are so high, you don't need Cecil B DeMille-like crowd scenes or supporting characters or even a romantic sub-plot. Instead, the more pared-down and focused these films are, the more intense their effect is likely to be.

'Gravity', 'Locke' and 'All Is Lost' are at the BFI London Film Festival, 9-20 October (www.bfi.org.uk/lff)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone