As you might expect, Closed Circuit opens with CCTV images of a central London market — showing us families, teenagers, vendors going about their business. It’s not the first time this year that we’ve been asked to see things through the eyes of the all-seeing security state, but in this case, the illusion of control is shattered when a terrorist bomb blows the place to smithereens. And that quick opening juxtaposition turns out to be a central one for this legal thriller, which isn’t so much about the deep state doing deep evil things so much as it is about one trying to cover up its own incompetence.
The actual setup, though, is pretty high-concept. After that massive bombing, a Turkish man, Faruk Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) is taken into custody, and we learn that, as a British terror suspect, he will face two simultaneous trials. One is public, with solemn, hunky barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) defending him. The other will be closed, with special advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) defending him. Here’s the first catch: These two lawyers can’t have anything to do with one another; no contact, no coordination, no sharing of evidence. Here’s the second catch: Early on, Martin asks that Claudia be removed from the case, stating that she’s not sharp enough for the job; the real reason, though, is because he once boinked her. In fact, she’s the reason he’s currently undergoing a nasty divorce, and an even nastier custody battle. And when Martin becomes convinced that Faruk might be an MI5 agent, and that the terror attack might have been a botched Secret Service operation, things start to get hairy.
Closed Circuit is at heart a flamboyant legal thriller — the kind where our heroes will escape being murdered by sinister-looking company men, all the while prepping for the Trial(so) of the Century and trying to stay out of each other’s pants. But the overall veneer is somber, deliberate. The characters speak in hushed tones. We get no “You’re out of order! This whole place is out of order!” or “I want … the truth!” moments. Even the government snooping is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, not as a shocking revelation. The characters seem to accept the fact that they have no personal or professional privacy. Everything unfolds elegantly, understatedly. The movie is a Grisham in Le Carré clothing.
This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Bana and Hall, two actors who get regularly miscast, feel just right here. He’s got leading-man looks and a certain natural intensity, but tends to be at his best when playing an ordinary fellow. It’s to director John Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight’s credit that they’ve made Martin a somewhat broken, adulterous guy. He’s not a legal hot shot. In fact, he’s the B-team — he only got put on the case after the original lawyer “committed suicide” (riiiight). As for Hall, she has a luminous presence, but again, with a certain everyday quality. When we watch her come home and take her shoes off to relax, she looks like a real person doing it, not a statuesque movie star. Ditto when she fiddles on a laptop. Details like this matter, and they serve the film well.
But let’s face it, Closed Circuit is also a bit of a silly story, and it could use an outburst or two, or a big dramatic courtroom face-off where a judge pounds a gavel and helplessly asks for order. That the film doesn’t deliver the predicted histrionics may come from a noble place — it’s a movie with big, serious things on its mind, after all — but there’s a mismatch here. The somber tone conflicts with the far-fetched story line, sapping it of the energy it needs to effectively sell its twists and turns. At one point, Martin and Claudia, the two former lovers, spend an evening moping about in their respective homes, quietly dreaming of each other. It’s a touching scene, but you wonder why the film even needed the romantic subplot if nothing was going to come of it. You want to see these two together, and you want the movie to reunite with its true self.