It doesn't come close to something like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, but Closed Circuit is a stylish throwback to the cynical political thrillers of the 1970s. It plays too many familiar notes without much flair or emotion, though, and that's ultimately its undoing.
The timing for a film like this could not be more convenient: Its launching pad is a public bombing in a major city and its underlying argument is that you can't trust the government. Sound familiar?
Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is a barrister assigned the most high-profile case of his career. He must defend a bombing suspect accused of masterminding a plot that killed hundreds of Londoners. He's not tackling the case alone, as such. The attorney general (Jim Broadbent) more or less manages things for the state from afar. We don't see much of Broadbent, which would always be a shame and is especially so here; the Oscar winner does a great job manipulating the playing field and Bana's character.
There's also a special advocate working for the defendant. It sounds like an arcane leftover of British justice (like the wigs), but the use of special advocates is relatively new. When a case is deemed of national security interest and evidence in that case might be highly sensitive, the defendant's regular barrister—in this case Martin Rose—goes outside for a smoke and in comes the special advocate, whose only job is to present that evidence in the presence of the prosecutor and the judge in a closed session. The accused never sees the evidence and neither does the barrister. Oh, and the law says the advocate and the barrister can never communicate during the case.
That's an interesting backbone for a legal thriller, and its most economical use for the purposes of creating tension is to give the barrister and the special advocate an overriding reason to talk. Martin Rose, meet Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). What's that? You two know each other because you had an affair? Perfect.
As they embark on their separate-but-equal investigations, something about the charges don't add up, and Martin and Claudia feel like they're being followed all the time. Director John Crowley shows us plenty of surveillance footage so we know they're being followed, too. But what we don't know is why; just what are our intrepid former lovers on to?
A note about intrepid former lovers: Films like Closed Circuit don't need a romance, but this story does need both the Martin and Claudia characters. And Crowley has really emphasized efficiency—short scenes, just the right amount of deeply involved characters—so keeping the entanglements close at hand fits here.
In fact, the only big negative against Closed Circuit is that it doesn't take enough time to be very unpredictable and create something new. It moves very purposely toward a conclusion it couldn't miss if it tried, keeping Eric Bana's career firmly in the forgettable middle of the road.
While Bana gives the latest in a long line of three-star performances, there's something great happening with Rebecca Hall. Remember when the James Bond producers needed a whip-smart nuclear physicist for The World Is Not Enough and they hired Denise Richards? Hall never looks like she's out of her depth. Even something as dense as this setup and as tricky as this plot isn't out of her reach for a minute.
In a better movie, one that knew where it wanted the ending to take us, a lot of people would sit up and take notice of Hall's work here.