Another week, another WikiLeak. What with the endless parade of revelations about governments spying on civilians, high-level industrial espionage, whistle-blowers in the military and the corporate world, international hacking wars and so on, the classic dystopian conceit of a monolithic Big Brother is beginning to seem almost quaint. In this Brave New World of the Infotech Age, we’re all spying on each other, apparently, and anything that you post on your Facebook page may be held against you forever – or at least until the next thing comes along to replace computers. That’ll be about six months down the road, at the rate we’re going.
So there couldn’t be a better time for a paranoid courtroom thriller like John Crowley’s Closed Circuit to be hitting the cinemas. It opens with a chilling montage of 120 people about to be killed by a truck bomb in a London riverfront marketplace, as captured by dozens of closed-circuit security cameras. The ubiquitous presence of those cameras throughout the city becomes an ominous motif throughout the entire movie; but, refreshingly for a summertime flick, that bombing is the last explosion that you’ll see.
There are a couple of brief, abrupt automobile accidents, but no wild, improbable, careening car chases. No gun battles, either – and who needs them, really? This is England, after all, not the US. And garroting someone with a wire is just as nasty, and much quieter. In other words, a James Bond movie this is emphatically not. That fact may hurt Closed Circuit at the box office, but endear it to those who prefer a “thinking person’s thriller.”
The premise of this film, beyond the given that it’s wisest to trust nobody nowadays, is that Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), the one surviving member of the Jihadist gang that set off the truck bomb, is about to stand trial, with the first phase to be held in a locked courtroom on account of the sensitive nature of some of the evidence and the classified identities of some of the witnesses. Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) is the Special Advocate assigned by the attorney general (Jim Broadbent) to have sole access to the classified evidence. With her highly expressive face, Hall is a joy to watch in the role of the tough-but-vulnerable attorney whose uncompromising sense of honor is about to get her into a whole lot of trouble.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s first defense attorney has died, ostensibly by suicide, and the ambitious, overconfident Martin Rose (Eric Bana) has been assigned to replace him. Whether or not this alignment is purely coincidental is a matter as dicey as the previous lawyer’s demise, however, since Claudia and Martin have had an affair in the past – one that ended badly, with Martin’s wife leaving him.
The two defense attorneys are forbidden to communicate once the classified materials have been opened, but they don’t seem to want to talk to each other very much anyway. So they deny under oath that there’s any conflict of interest in their working on the same case, and Martin’s friend and colleague Devlin (Ciarán Hinds, who as usual steals every scene that he’s in) serves as their officially sanctioned go-between.
That is, until things start to get weird. Martin keeps getting picked up by the same taxi wherever he goes; Claudia notices books out of place in her scrupulously neat flat (though why people with high-security-clearance sorts of jobs in movies live in apartments with huge banks of uncurtained windows remains an eternal mystery). Both start to suspect that the accused terrorist has a more complicated background than the government is willing to admit, with large time gaps in the record as well as some improbably expedited relocations of their closemouthed client and his family.
The more they learn about Erdogan, of course, the more they put themselves at risk personally, with the inevitable result that they have to start communicating surreptitiously. And it shouldn’t come as much of a spoiler to reveal that there’s still considerable attraction between them in spite of past hard feelings. The onscreen chemistry is subtle but believable, unfolding in a gratifyingly gradual way.
In fact, regular consumers of espionage thrillers will probably not find many of the plot twists in Closed Circuit all that difficult to anticipate; but that doesn’t detract much from the dramatic tension, which is largely atmospheric – helped along considerably by Joby Talbot’s spare, edgy score. Adriano Goldman’s moody cinematography and Lucia Zucchetti’s snappy-but-not-jarring editing keep pointing us cleanly at the details that we need to notice – and not missing those details is critical to following the plot densely laid out in Steven Knight’s economical screenplay. You need to be wide awake to get the most out of this movie, but you won’t experience much in the way of those “Whoa, what just happened?” moments that so plague contemporary films, in which important bits of exposition got left on the cutting-room floor to make room for more nonstop action.
A fine cast and a timely yarn, tautly told, add up here to one of the better thrillers on offer this year. Afterwards, don’t be surprised if you find yourself more aware of all those closed-circuit cameras that seem to surround us in these post-privacy times. Hey, it’s only a movie – but remember: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t necessarily mean that They aren’t out to get you.