For a film built around political outrage, Closed Circuit is a curiously subdued affair, an indictment of the British intelligence community that never raises its voice above a low, urgent whisper.
Despite its timely subject matter and the best efforts of a reliable cast, director John Crowley’s middlebrow courtroom drama, released in the wake of the Bradley Manning verdict and the ongoing saga of Edward Snowden, deals with everything from intelligence leaks to overreaching government agencies in a manner so topically tranquilized it could pass for cinematic anesthesia.
Without revealing too much, the basic setup plays like a latter-day Adam’s Rib crossbred with a dour, derivative version of A Few Good Men. In the aftermath of a devastating suicide bombing in a busy London marketplace, MI6 arrests Turkish immigrant and heroin addict Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), painting him as the mastermind behind the attack. The young man’s trial is closed to the public, a measure meant to prevent the dissemination of classified evidence that will supposedly ensure his conviction — evidence that will likely never see the light of day.
When Erdogan’s defense counsel mysteriously commits suicide, the attorney general (Jim Broadbent) replaces the dead man with rival barristers/ex-lovers Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). As the case’s special advocate, Claudia is given exclusive access to the aforementioned files, delivered to her by a flirtatious, vaguely creepy government handler (Riz Ahmed). From there the genre tropes fly thick and fast: Discrepancies are discovered, lives are threatened, Old Bailey wigs are ruffled, romance is rekindled and cars are rudely T-boned in the middle of important conversations.
Closed Circuit bears a surface-level resemblance to the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, an auteur-driven sub-genre typified by classics such as Francis Coppola’s The Conversation and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor. Unlike those earlier films, however, Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight rely on plot-driven characters as opposed to character-driven plots, meaning that Bana and Hall are reduced to playing archetypal placeholders for the majority of the movie.
Even their sexual tension feels calculated and perfunctory; a distraction from the thornier political issues (terrorism, surveillance abuses, the illusion of control), Knight’s screenplay seems all too willing to quietly gloss over hot-button topics. This is especially surprising given his previous work, which has never shied away from hot-button issues, tackling everything from prostitution rings to black market organ trafficking. Dirty Pretty Things, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and this summer’s Jason Statham vehicle, Redemption (released internationally as Hummingbird), are all vivid, harrowing portraits of London’s nightmare fringes, stories that embrace their subjects with harsh, unblinking devotion. Closed Circuit, by contrast, treats its touchiest elements with thematic kid gloves.
Hall, who stole the show in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give and Ben Affleck’s The Town, specializes in playing tightly-wound professional types who undergo some kind of spiritual crisis or reawakening. Her struggle to find depth and nuance in Claudia is undermined at every turn by the movie’s oddly brief 96-minute runtime. Bana, who held his own opposite Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan in 2011’s Grimm Euro-thriller Hanna, fares a bit better, especially during his scenes with Broadbent’s faux-jolly attorney general, which crackle with a cynical, hard-bitten exuberance largely missing from the rest of the film.
The supporting cast of Closed Circuit is arguably its saving grace. Ciarán Hinds, the craggy Irish character actor best known for supporting turns in There Will Be Blood and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, radiates noble exhaustion as Martin’s fellow barrister and law school mentor Devlin, who might know more about the Erdogan case than he’s letting on. Ahmed, the lone highlight of last spring’s otherwise forgettable The Reluctant Fundamentalist, brings a sense of ambiguous menace to an underwritten role as a self-loathing Muslim MI5 agent, while Julia Stiles (The Bourne trilogy) makes the most of her limited screentime as Joanna, a meddlesome New York Times reporter who goes to extreme lengths to contact Martin.
As far as late August releases go, Closed Circuit is a cut above juvenile claptrap such as Kick Ass 2 and We’re the Millers, but it’s difficult to imagine this classy but dramatically sluggish thriller lingering too long in anyone’s memory. Though the supporting performances and mildly diverting third act keep its heart beating, it’s still difficult to summon even faint praise for a movie that manages to do so little with so much potential.
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