Ever get the feeling that someone is watching? Increasingly, what was once a mark of paranoia and sleep deprivation has become the only rational way to live in the modern world. Indeed, after the Edward Snowden Affair, political conspiracy movies don’t even seem so much like fiction; they can be just another fleeting voice in this closed circuit world. Thus, Closed Circuit, the new film from director John Crowley (Boy A) feels like it has something to prove. With a world where the NSA likely records everything you do online, how do you make it scarier? It turns out that the first answer is you make it British. This picture harkens back to a number of 1970s thrillers, most particularly Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor(1975), except now everything has a distinctly English sensibility. Set in the theatrically archaic rituals of the British legal system, Closed Circuit attempts to examine the judicial process in matters of national security for our friends across the pond, and it comes up with a frightfully new angle for our 21st century world. Beginning with a horrific terrorist attack on early morning rush hour in downtown London, recorded (how else?) on closed circuited cameras, the picture quickly switches gears by becoming a legal labyrinth of cover-ups and phony suicides for our heroes to be consumed in. The first of whom is Martin Rose (Eric Bana) a successful barrister in London who has been ordered by the British Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) to defend an Arab cab driver who has been fingered as the mastermind behind the attack. The previous barrister who was on the case has apparently committed suicide after making strides into his inquiries. How about that? Martin is a smug and satisfied lawyer who wears a perpetual disdain for everyone around him. However, he reserves his greatest indignation for Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), a fellow advocate who once had a torrid affair with Martin some years back prior to his divorce. While Martin nor the film tends to blame Claudia for his shambled marriage, one has to ponder the role it had on the matrimony. In any event, they are about to be closer than ever, as Martin is stepping in merely as Emir Erdogan’s (Hasancan Cifci) defense barrister. As a trick of recent British law, neither he nor his client can see the heavy evidence that implicates Emir in the terrorist attack. Deemed a risk to national security, a special advocate, Claudia, must defend Emir in this department in a closed court session that Martin cannot advise on. Of course, Martin and Claudia break these rules with wild abandonment as their separate investigations into the terrorist attack unearth fishy things, such as the defendant being able to afford a sports car on a cabbie’s salary, and that Emir is not his real name. Also, the name MI5 (British Secret Service charged with homeland security) keeps cropping up. Cue the nosy but effective New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles) with a juicy tip for the case, and friendly warnings from the smiling Broadbent. Soon we all want to know just why this case of the century is playing out in complete darkness.Closed Circuit enjoys tapping into the paranoia of our time. While the conventions of the thriller are constantly at play, the thought of an organization charged with protecting citizens inadvertently playing a role in their demise is as harrowing as it is quaint in the post-blogsophere world. Luckily, it is how sterling the script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) with its un-malevolent the machinations that helps avoid the bigger pitfalls of cliché. Nearly every major character, from our two heroes to the always-welcome presences of Ciarán Hinds and Kenneth Cranham, is a public servant; legal eagles who genuinely seem to have the country’s best interest at heart, and not in that ham-fisted Jack “You can’t handle the truth!” Nicholson way. Even when the falsely smiling faces of the shadows emerge, they are not twisted villains of an Oliver Stone movie or Alex Jones ravings; they’re genuine civil servants whose initial goals are sincerely well intentioned. Hence, their actions take on an air of authenticity and true horror during the film’s final acts. Late in the movie, one of the would-be villains admits that the security system is too well-automated to even fight, even if forces within the government wanted to. We never see who is watching Martin and Claudia on those CCTV cameras, because it really doesn’t matter. It is all an unchecked piece of machinery now with no discernable place to open, much less expose. Even if there were, Martin and Claudia are hardly equipped with the tools to do so. As the heroes, Bana and Hall are excellent at conveying cynicism and idealism, respectively. It’s not that Martin doesn’t believe in the system, he just appears to accept it isn’t worth fighting. Yet, eventually he is pulled into its world as the more egregious evidence becomes unavoidable, and Claudia finds herself submerged in it. However, their star-crossed romance never really escalates the story beyond adding a foil for their early scenes and a threat of scandal by one of the movie’s antagonists. Otherwise, the conventional love story feels tacked on to add depth to a pair of archetypes. The acting across the board is excellent, unfortunately whatever conflict that Martin and Claudia do have in deciding whether or not to go after the MI5 is lost in the third act when they merely become avatars for the audience to witness the more rote and predictable elements of a thriller unfold. The ending shall surprise no one but our wayward heroes in its final chases and denouement. And the downbeat resolution feels more like an afterthought.
Still, this film is buoyed by exploring a Gordian Knot in the British legal system that is both eye-opening and all-too-real. The presentation of this world is brisk and quickly paced, but never once (at least during the first two acts) does it feel anything short of our own. And when the characters finally get their wigs on (and off) in the courtroom, the movie gets to shine by asking the most unpleasant questions about the price of knowledge in our ever so secretive world. While the twists and turns it does take can become broad, it is an intriguing and thought-provoking film that floats in the subconscious after the lights go up.Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars