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Private Screening

film closed circuit'Closed Circuit' an informative, unsurprising look at political skullduggery

The current buzzword "transparency" is what everyone is supposed to be striving for these days. In national and local politics, in corporate operations, in academic policies, in any public arena whose business impacts public life, the idea of transparency is embraced as a magic wand against the kind of skullduggery best carried out in secret.

In the British legal thriller, Closed Circuit, Britain's Attorney General (played by Jim Broadbent, with his usual imperious aplomb) assures the public that the judicial process by which a Middle Eastern suspect will be tried for a terrorist bombing in London will be "Fair and transparent." Which, of course, cues the audience to expect that process to be anything but. Despite the secrets and lies surrounding the case, however, there's plenty of transparency to be found in the storytelling—in Steven Wright's efficient, but unsurprising by-the-book script, and in John Crowley's dispassionate direction that rarely finds a pulse of urgency in the material.

Eric Bana stars as Martin Rose, an attorney picked to head the defense team in the case of Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), surviving member of a terrorist cell accused of exploding a truck bomb in the middle of a crowded London thoroughfare. Martin is appointed to the case after his predecessor commits suicide. This causes a minor moral dilemma, as Martin has recently had an affair with the lawyer, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who's been appointed special advocate to the defendant. It's a breach of ethics if they both stay on the case, but since the affair is over, and neither wants to give up the prestige of his or her position, they meet briefly to agree to keep their little secret and stay on the team.

This first little compromise of the truth has larger repercussions later, of course. The case is so sensitive, some of the evidence and testimony will be withheld from the public, the defendant, even some of the defense team in closed sessions, in the interest of "national security," and the powers that be want it all managed quickly and cleanly. Yet both Martin and Claudia begin turning up disturbing bits of evidence that contradict the official government scenario.

Increasingly paranoid that they are being watched, followed, and "managed," the lawyers' investigation fans out to involve a frosty MI5 op (Anne-Marie Duff), an insinuating watchdog of a Secret Service agent (Riz Ahmed), a crusading American journalist (Julia Stiles), and Martin's wry old friend, mentor, and colleague, Devlin (Ciarán Hinds).

Multiple closed-circuit TV monitors watching the action from several viewpoints provide menace throughout, increasing the sense of nonstop surveillance and the erosion of privacy. And yet there is never much to look at in this film. London looks dank and gray, the barristers' clothing is sober black, judicial offices are starkly lit bright white, shadows are dark but not sinister. Even in a scene at a soccer match crammed with fans in colorful team-striped mufflers, the crowd seems more sedate than pushy and lively, as if they understood they were only providing background atmosphere.

The story proceeds coherently onscreen, ticking off its plot points in a thoughtful and timely manner. But there never seems to be much at stake for the viewer (unless you're intensely interested in the arcane procedures of the British court system)—mostly because neither Bana nor Hall are given fully-realized personalities to play. Martin is cool and perceptive; Claudia is ambitious to succeed in a man's world. But these are character sketches, not characterizations, and the actors have little to work with.

Nor do Hall and Bana generate much chemistry as past lovers. Yes, Claudia and Martin are deliberately cool with each other in public, trying to conceal their former intimacy. But the undercurrent of tension between them, while suggested, is never strong enough for the audience to root desperately for them as circumstances become  more dangerous, or to care about their fate. And without strong viewer identification with these two characters, the finale fails to resonate.

Closed Circuit presents an informative look at legal and political maneuvering, but it never transcends its genre to morph into something really special. 


CLOSED CIRCUIT ★ ★1/2 (out of four) With Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciarán Hinds, Jim Broadbent, and  Julia Stiles. Written by Steven Knight. Directed by John Crowley. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 96 minutes.

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