Film Review: Closed Circuit

A storyline that couldn't be timelier unfolds with a vintage air of 1970s cynicism in this unusually thoughtful thriller.

It begins, all too disturbingly, with a devastating truck-bomb blast in a bustling London marketplace. Even when you know it’s coming, that explosion—and the barren crater it leaves in the cityscape—hits a lot harder and lasts a lot longer than most far bigger-budgeted f/x fireworks ever could. Because the moment depicted here has really happened, too recently, too unforgettably, too many times. We’ve all really seen this moment. We’ve all lived it.

So right out of the gate, Closed Circuit demands your full attention. And then, much more subtly, but no less surely, the film gets under your skin, luring you into a labyrinthine plot that seemingly traps its protagonists, like flies in a spider’s web.

After its opening salvo, the film settles into the procedural rhythms of a legal drama that seems to be all about sticky ethical issues, bureaucratic gamesmanship and various personal secrets and lies, as they apply to a court-waged war on terrorism. And for a while, the script by Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) quite provocatively riffs on that interplay of conflicting agendas and changed-up rules. But, smart as it is, that’s just the set-up for a tightly woven, increasingly suspenseful thriller that is so convincing because it is so easy to imagine. Like the novels of John le Carré, this intrigue is firmly grounded in the very real world in which we live.

Mere minutes into the film, the only surviving member (Denis Moschitto) of the terrorist cell behind the bombing has been forcefully taken into custody—which is when the focus shifts to the machinations of “the most high-profile murder trial” in British history, as seen through the eyes of defending barrister Martin Rose (a brooding Eric Bana) and Special Advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe (an elegant Rebecca Hall). He is brought onto the case only after the original legal counsel commits a terribly inconvenient suicide. She’s there because her sterling record as a person of high principles makes her the most qualified to be trusted with evidence that has been declared classified, for reasons of national security. She can’t even share it with her fellow counsel Martin—with whom she just happens to have had an affair that broke her heart and destroyed his marriage.

When both barristers are asked if there are any personal issues that might compromise their joint handling of the case—and both say no—we’re Hollywood-conditioned to sense an imminent slow burn of sexual tension that would start out cloaked as your basic professional-rival antagonism, and end up with the two of them up against some kitchen counter, with her legs wrapped around his waist. But given this film’s cool, cerebral tone, that wouldn’t have felt at all right. And to his credit, director John Crowley (Intermission) doesn’t play it that way. Of course, he’s helped by the fact that Martin and Claudia are following separate investigative paths that keep them physically apart, for more than half the film’s running time. Closed Circuit may share a jaded distrust of government shenanigans with some of the best like-minded films of the ’70s—but romantically speaking, it’s no Three Days of the Condor.

Which isn’t to say that screenwriter Knight doesn’t find a way to bring Martin and Claudia together, in a way that feels organic. It all seems to happen quite naturally, as these former lovers individually chip away at the deepening mystery from different angles, each coming up with questions that don’t have immediate answers.

Without giving away too many of the answers, the film’s line of inquiry goes something like this: Did Martin’s predecessor on the case really jump off a roof, or was he thrown? Is the suspect’s name really Farroukh Erdogan, or is he somebody else with his own dark history? And what does Farroukh’s teenage son know that he’s not telling? And what are the ulterior motives of more than one guest at a seemingly casual dinner party that Martin attends? Finally, who among the presumed good guys can Martin and Claudia truly trust, except each other?

The film does a masterful job of raising and (eventually) answering those questions and others for maximum effect, as the tension mounts from vague suspicions to increasing paranoia to run-for-your-life panic. And though there are no more explosions—or even any gunshots—after that bomb goes off, that doesn’t mean that all the people you actually care about aren’t repeatedly endangered. This film is neatly effective at reminding us that, even in modern movie thrillers, one doesn’t have to be blown up or riddled with bullets to be killed off. They can also be garroted, shivved or broadsided by a truck.

Those are among the murder modes that are attempted here. By the time they start cropping up in close succession, anyone who’s been paying attention should be inching toward the edge of the seat. Which is more than enough of a dividend from a topical thriller that also gets points for its admirable taste and restraint. That the whole thing also gets you thinking about such relevant issues as intelligence agencies run rampant and freedom of the press both abused and suppressed? That’s more than we had a right to expect from a 21st-century thriller. That’s pretty much icing on the cake.