The UK drama Closed Circuit aims to be a thinking person’s thriller, a tale of government conspiracy that hits scarily close to home. In reality, it never gets more thrilling or chilling than its first scene, in which we observe a bustling London outdoor market through a half dozen closed-circuit TV cameras posted at different angles.
It’s like the opening of The Conversation on steroids. The overload of stimuli makes us feel confused, voyeuristic, paranoid and certain that something nasty could happen at any minute. Sure enough, it does.
When the smoke from a terrorist’s bomb clears, the city is left with 120 corpses and a single living suspect, a Turkish emigré named Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto). Because certain evidence against him is classified — we’re informed via a snippet of faux news program — part of Erdogan’s trial will take place out of the public eye, with a specially appointed attorney forbidden to communicate with his regular advocate.
Clearly, this closed court session is the perfect opportunity for the powers that be to do something shady. It all seems intriguing enough — until the lengthy exposition ends, and we finally meet our protagonists.
When Erdogan’s lawyer commits suicide, Martin Rose (Eric Bana), tapped to take his place, learns that the defendant’s “special advocate” is Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), a bright young thing with whom Rose once had an affair. (It’s implied that their dalliance broke up his marriage.)
Both lawyers should report their past entanglement to the judge and step down, but they choose instead to perjure themselves and forge ahead. They make this decision — which puts them under surveillance and, eventually, in mortal danger — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
And therein lies the main problem with Closed Circuit: Its central characters feel like pawns and placeholders, waiting for the writer (Steven Knight, who scripted Eastern Promises) to inject them with personality. We need to feel their ambition, their fierce sense of ethics and their romantic chemistry; we don’t. Bana and Hall aren’t bad actors, just ones with nothing to play. Occasionally, someone makes a remark suggesting that Rose is an arrogant jerk, but we don’t see him act like one. The closest he has to an individual trait is his fondness for sculling on the Thames, which gives director John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) an occasion for elegant visuals.
There are plenty more of those. The film has a consistent look, a cold, bluish sheen that reinforces the characters’ sense of having nowhere to hide. But Crowley’s focus on surfaces mutes those characters into nonentities or stereotypes, and the script doesn’t help. The film hits a low point when a bad guy pauses in the middle of garrotting somebody to explain why he’s right and his victim is wrong.
The only actors who make an imprint are Jim Broadbent as the attorney general — a sinister-teddy-bear performance, reminiscent of the elder Laurence Olivier — and Anne-Marie Duff as a government functionary with a massive chip on her shoulder. Her self-righteous anger at anyone who dares question her less-than-legal agenda gives the movie so much energy that I found myself wishing it were all about her.
At this point, there’s just nothing fresh about a story of well-meaning lawyers with an unresolved attraction to each other fighting a massive government cover-up. Far more thought provoking would be a film that entered the perspective of those who coldly engineer such deceptions with the sincere conviction that they’re acting in the public interest.
If you don’t already find closed court sessions and the prevalence of CCTV cameras creepy, Closed Circuit could convince you. But for those who share its world view, the movie offers little beyond a hollow affirmation. One wishes the filmmakers had chosen a different camera feed to zoom in on.