Closed Circuit (United Kingdom, 2013)August 28, 2013
Labor Day weekend is arguably the worst time of the year for a U.S. movie release. Films set to open at the end of August/beginning of September are given up for dead by their distributor. This is typically for one of two reasons: the production is deemed too smart for mainstream audiences or the production is deemed too stupid for mainstream audiences. Fortunately, Closed Circuit is closer to the former than the latter. The film's difficulties as far as multiplex audiences are easy to spot: it's a slow-burn thriller, not one based on flashes, bangs, and chases; it demands constant attention (no bathroom breaks or quick trips to the snack bar), and it doesn't sew everything up into a tidy, feel-good package. It's a downbeat trip into the byzantine world of political secrets and, while there's an unmistakable Jason Bourne flavor to the proceedings, this doesn't involve any superhuman characters and it's grounded in an uncomfortable simulacrum.
The first images we see are live shots from closed circuit cameras. Although this is a recurring motif throughout, it's underused. Visually, the movie reminds us that, no matter where we are, we're always under surveillance, but it doesn't do much with the idea. Calling the film Closed Circuit is a red herring, although it adds to the general sense of paranoia that encases the main characters.
The event that sets things in motion is a suicide bombing in a busy outdoor London market. 120 people are killed. Three of the four men identified as being in the "terrorist cell" also die, leaving their alleged leader, an immigrant named Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), to stand trial for mass murder. Because the prosecution's case includes classified material that cannot be entered into the public record or even shown to the defendant, a twisty procedure is employed whereby he has two lawyers: Martin Rose (Eric Bana), who represents him in the open court proceedings, and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who argues for him in a closed court. She is allowed to see the secret material but can't share it with anyone, including her client or the other lawyer. Additional complications arise because Martin and Claudia are ex-lovers whose parting was less-than-amicable. As their respective investigations into the bombing proceed, both become convinced that there's something strange happening. Not only are their moves being tracked but the shadow of MI5 hovers over everything. And both Martin's boss, Devlin (Ciaran Hinds), and the Attorney General (Jim Broadbent), speak portentous words.
Closed Circuit is presented as a procedural, with revelation building upon revelation to reveal a conspiracy that those involved are eager to keep under wraps. As is often the case in this sort of movie, the government is at the center of the web. However, while there's nothing new about this basic storyline, director John Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight opt for a more restrained and believable narrative. Instead of Martin and Claudia facing down opposition and ultimately bringing the conspiracy into the light of day, they realize they're in over their heads and the opposition is too strong. They decide to strike a deal to save their lives and learn that, to their chagrin, the decision may have come too late.
Closed Circuit relies on the slow build-up of tension rather than the kinetic explosion of it that characterizes early summer releases. It's a moody production and, although there are a couple of gratuitous action scenes, this is more about developing a story than teasing the visual cortex. The movie is low-key but each scene is packed with information. Full understanding demands full attention.
The acting, as is almost the case with British films, is of the highest caliber, with top performers like Jim Broadbent and Ciaran Hinds ably filling supporting roles. Broadbent manages to be chilling while projecting the aura of a caring fatherly figure. Eric Bana gives his best performance since Munich and Rebecca Hall is better than in anything I've seen her in recently except perhaps the TV mini-series Parade's End. Although the (past) romance is underplayed, they have just enough chemistry for the frisson between them to work. The lone American is Julia Stiles, who has a small role as an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
Because it requires attention and patience and isn't chock full of pyrotechnics and special effects, Closed Circuit will find its potential audience limited, which is the reason Focus Features has elected to release it at a time when theater attendance is at a low ebb. For those who appreciate this sort of film, however, it's an engaging way to spend about 90 minutes. The screenplay isn't airtight - there are a couple of cheats here and there - but it's a better-than-average example of this sort of movie and the ending doesn't strain credulity in the service of a justice-conquers-all message.
Closed Circuit (United Kingdom, 2013)
Cast: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, Jim Broadbent, Julia Stiles, Denis Moschitto
Screenplay: Steven Knight
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
Music: Joby Talbot
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features