With its thematic concerns of surveillance, privacy, global terrorism and due process, the contemporary thriller “ Closed Circuit ” should crackle and pop with topical relevance. But somehow this wheels-of-justice procedural — set in London after a Sept. 11-type attack — manages to capture the driest legalisms of the issues it engages without a scintilla of genuine energy or verve.
Admittedly, “Closed Circuit” gets off to a promising start, in an opening sequence ingeniously structured around multiplying images from closed-circuit TV cameras — which, as any fan of “Law & Order: UK” knows, are as common as crumpets in England. But when the movie takes up the story six months later, the storytelling settles into something far more pedestrian as an attorney named Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and a special advocate named Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) set about defending the man accused of bombing a popular London shopping area.
The twist — or, more accurately, one among many — is that, as the only lawyer with access to classified evidence and testimony, Claudia can’t share her evidence with Martin, so the two are forced into a game of cat-and-mouse in which they’re on the same side. Their relationship is made even more complicated by what can be politely called emotional baggage. The fact that screenwriter Steven Knight saw fit to give them a history that’s so creakingly cliche is the first of many disappointments in a script rife with convenient coincidences, predictable plot contrivances and breathtakingly perfunctory revelations.
Both Knight, who wrote the estimable thrillers “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises,” and director John Crowley (“Intermission,” “Boy A”) have done much better work in the past. Crowley in particular seems to be off his game with “Closed Circuit,” assembling an outstanding cast but giving it very little to do by way of imaginative staging or character work. As virtual embodiments of pure, quiet focus, Bana and Hall are always a joy to watch, just as Ciaran Hinds, Jim Broadbent and the caramel-voiced Kenneth Cranham, as a stentorian judge, handle their roles with polished assurance. (As for Julia Stiles, she shows up in a cameo that’s good for some expository heavy lifting and little else.)
But few audience members will be surprised to learn who’s up to what in a film that, despite its roots in the sophisticated political thrillers of the 1970s, settles for banal conspiracy-mongering and loose ends that are risibly tidy bows by the film’s rushed ending.
With television shows such as “Homeland” and “House of Cards” now playing the role that “Three Days of the Condor” once did, it’s tempting to speculate how “Closed Circuit” might have been conceived as a smart, stylish television series, the better to let the story play out and for such terrific actors to find the hidden layers, tones and textures of their characters. As a feature film, “Closed Circuit” is intriguing, even mildly diverting. That might have been fine for another film at another time, but in light of the here and now, this one should have been more.
John Crowley’s London-set conspiracy thriller opens with Broadway Market on CCTV, with separate little dramas kicking off in every corner of the screen. These ordinary lives are fused in smoke, screaming and tragedy when a bomb goes off. Pinning it on the main suspect, a Turkish terrorist called Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), requires the perusal of evidence so classified that not even his defence barrister (Eric Bana, rather failing at “posh English lawyer”), is allowed to see it. The court will have to declare a closed session, and the defence needs a special advocate with state-security clearance (Rebecca Hall) to argue for full disclosure.
Bana’s character is late to the job, replacing an original attorney who supposedly committed suicide, but you don’t need to have seen every potboiler about government cover-ups — 1986’s Defence of the Realm, say — to smell a rat here. Bana and Hall have also had an affair, which means they have to perjure themselves even to be assigned to this vexing case, but you begin to wonder exactly what’s in it for them to get snarled in such a compromising position in the first place.
We at least look set for a few electric courtroom showdowns, but Steven Knight’s script blows a third-act fuse. It seems perverse to make the most interesting character — the shady, possibly-undercover Erdogan — into such a minor player, depriving the gifted German actor Moschitto of what should have been a plum role, and letting Jim Broadbent steal the show in his place as a cynical Attorney General who does all his deadliest work over a full English.