Opening a week after Bradley Manning’s sentencing in the U.S., where significant portions of the case were held in secret to protect national security, British courtroom thriller “Closed Circuit” challenges the validity of policies that shield key evidence from public scrutiny. Since the topic itself isn’t especially sexy, screenwriter Steven Knight cooks up a plot in which a pair of defense lawyers who were once a couple find themselves on opposite sides of the secrecy divide, injecting romantic intrigue into this slick, smarter-than-usual conspiracy yarn — a late-summer counter-programmer for those who prefer brain stimulation to having their eyeballs and eardrums pummeled.
The risk of appealing to the audience’s intelligence is that they’ll be smart enough to see through the logical gaps perpetrated along the way, and “Closed Circuit” presents some pretty big ones, managing to be righteously indignant about the handling of a high-profile terrorism case while conveniently allowing its heroes to break the rules.
When a truck explodes in London’s bustling Borough Market, authorities are swift in arresting Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), the man they accuse of masterminding the terrorist attack. In order to try his case, the court must consider evidence so sensitive, even the defendant is not allowed to hear it. In such unusual situations, the accused is entitled to two separate lawyers, one to try his case in public, and the other to serve as special advocate during the closed portions of the trial.
In dramatizing such a case, Knight quickly makes clear how difficult it is for someone to defend himself under such circumstances. Still, it’s hard for the film to take the moral high ground when it asks audiences to accept an ethical lapse straight out of the gate on behalf of the “good guys,” defense attorneys Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), owing to a previous love affair that compromises their ability to refrain from sharing information in a case that demands exactly that.
Instead of recusing themselves on ethical grounds, they let their egos get the better of them. Rose steps in after the unexpected suicide (or was it?) of his legal mentor in spite of his connection to the special advocate — a decision that allows certain Powers That Be to manipulate him down the road. “Closed Circuit” belongs to that tradition of paranoid political thriller exemplified by 1985’s “Edge of Darkness” and countless American pics where shadowy government forces will stop at nothing to mask their own corruption. It’s an exciting genre, but one in which valid institutional criticisms tend to get lost in the overall sense of hysteria. “Closed Circuit” is no exception, its title designed to raise the alarm over both the injustice of closed court hearings and the use of near-ubiquitous surveillance technology throughout London.
Covert surveillance also factored heavily in screenwriter Knight’s recent feature directing debut, “Redemption,” in which cameras tracked the whereabouts of Jason Statham’s frantic man-on-the-run. Here, director John Crowley (“Intermission”) amplifies the sense that London has become a police state by frequently shifting between the film’s own omniscient point of view (a convention audiences readily accept) and footage lifted from security cameras around town, which feels creepy by comparison, since we don’t know who’s watching or how they’re using it.
Ironically, though such invasions of privacy tend to annoy average citizens, circumstances like the acts of terrorism depicted in “Closed Circuit” effectively justify such methods, which, as seen in the wake of this spring’s Boston Marathon bombing, greatly expedite authorities’ ability to apprehend suspects. For the sake of the film, it’s easy to understand why the government would be motivated to seek a hasty conviction for the horrific mass murder whose hyper-tasteful depiction — a security grid of the victims-to-be, followed by an extreme wide shot from across London of a cloud of smoke rising where the market once stood — borders on tastelessness.
There’s no right way to render such events, and this one resembles the MI5 strike in last year’s “Skyfall” — only MI5 represents the heart of the corruption here, rather than the heroic entity that society permits to bend the rules for their own protection. Still, no one wants to see lawyers as lovely as Bana and Hall snuffed simply for doing their jobs, least of all themselves, and their third moral breach (after taking the case and sharing classified evidence) is their willingness to bargain with MI5 at their client’s expense the instant their own lives are threatened.
Between Knight’s nuanced script and Crowley’s nimble direction, such contradictions shouldn’t distract audiences much from the immediate thrills of this taut genre exercise, which represents a style of conspiratorial nobody-wins storytelling seldom seen since the days of “Defense of the Realm” and “No Way Out.” “Closed Circuit” borrows its steely look from such pics, using a lucid combination of handheld camerawork and tight editing to update the template.
Here, the Man is represented with chilling cordiality by Jim Broadbent, who turns his typically pleasant disposition into a facade of ruthless insincerity. Everyone’s allegiances are suspect, and twists abound, which explains why Ciaran Hinds, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed and Anne-Marie Duff (too seldom seen beyond “Shameless”) were attracted to their relatively small roles.
Easily the biggest sleight-of-hand in the film’s plot involves the prosecution’s reason for demanding a closed trial, and though it affords some meaty dramatics — both in a “wigs off” session of court and the near-death, cross-London escapades required to deliver a star witness — the whole conceit is rigged to prove the movie’s cynical point: When one party makes the rules, all the other can do is play along.