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'Closed Circuit' Targets Big Brother, But Swings Pretty Wide

Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall play lawyerly allies with a complicated past — one that threatens to increase their present peril — in the surveillance-state thriller <em>Closed Circuit.</em>
Jay Maidment
Focus Features
Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall play lawyerly allies with a complicated past — one that threatens to increase their present peril — in the surveillance-state thriller Closed Circuit.

A massive explosion rocks a covered market, but Central London still looks mighty handsome in the British thriller Closed Circuit.So does the actress Rebecca Hall. Decked out in blacks, creams and grays, she and her city both are sleek, elegant and more than a little forbidding, even if they're softened by pockets of olde worlde soul.

Hall plays Claudia, a lawyer assigned to monitor the government's closed-court use of classified evidence against the bombing's one surviving suspect, Faroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto). Erdogan is a Turk with an apparent drug habit, and when his lawyer dies without warning, Claudia finds herself partnered with his replacement, Martin, played by Eric Bana with consistently clenched jaw and inconsistent slippage into Aussie diction.

Needless to say, the two were lovers once, a fact they agree to gloss over in preliminary talks with the judge (Cameron Fischer) and the Attorney General, a fishy customer played with chilling bonhomie by Jim Broadbent. The lie will pop up later to change the game.

In a twist apparently based on real-life developments in criminal law, Claudia's exposure to classified evidence forbids any communication with her colleague. So much for that: When Claudia and Martin find out that Erdogan is not who he seems to be, the pair join forces to uncover what may be an unsavory alliance between Britain's secret service and its criminal justice system.

There's been a cover-up, you see, and as the two try to protect a compromised informant, dodge unidentified thugs and count the bodies of other potential whistle-blowers who know more than is good for them — The New York Times fares poorly — chemistry seeps back between Martin and Claudia.

Seeps is the word: Like almost everything in this emotionally attenuated movie, their attraction is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Expect no nookie; this is — earnestly, strenuously and very slowly — a movie about Right and Wrong.

Though clearly influenced by American paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, Closed Circuit, which is directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission), is a clunky creature. And no amount of split-screen devilry, meaningful cutaways to the Houses of Parliament or taut string scoring can paper over the cumulative improbabilities of the storyline. In Steve Knight's heavy-breathing script, no one gets to open his or her mouth unless it's to push the plot along or underline big themes of government malfeasance and injustice.

In fact, Closed Circuit is less about terrorism and blowing stuff up than it is a disquisition about our ever-deepening mistrust of government. More topical than true, the film plays our current fears of urban terrorism against escalating public anxiety about the abuse of institutional power in the name of national security.

Right now few of us would have trouble believing that government surveillance has gotten out of control, or that authorities in Western democracies are stepping all over their citizens' privacy and civil rights. But it is quite another thing to push on, as Closed Circuit does, into government-sponsored murder.

Willy-nilly, this film takes us into territory that levels all differences between democratic and totalitarian states, at least as regards their power to trample on ordinary people. Even as a fantasy about where a lack of transparency might go, left unchecked, it's storytelling informed by sloppy, absolutist thinking, and it lends one more uncritical voice to the many who seem unable to distinguish between kinds and degrees of evil — a failing that now immobilizes Western political rhetoric on both left and the right. Heaven knows, we have enough to feel paranoid about these days without Hollywood's help.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.