The only effective sequence in “Closed Circuit” is its first, a nerve-wracking surveillance camera view of London’s Borough Market that slowly multiplies: one screen becomes two, then four, six, twelve. The only reason anyone consciously views this kind of footage is to piece together a crime, and as the visual chaos multiplies, it’s initially hard to sort out where the threat will come from: the emergence of a truck that looms into the frames and explodes is a sick inevitability.
The bombing’s an assault on a market claiming a history going back more than a thousand years, one that’s served in recent years as a photogenic, tourist-baiting backdrop for Bridget Jones and Harry Potter. With a target whose centrality to London’s self-image is clear, “Closed Circuit” next establishes its recent political reference points through the explosion itself (an invocation of the 7/7 bombing attacks) and the subsequent suicide of the first appointed counsel for the defense. (The allusion is to Dr. David Kelly, a weapons expert whose off-the-record quote to a journalist about the lack of WMD facilities in Iraq infuriated the Blair administration and preceded his suicide, that coroner’s verdict itself the subject of conspiracy theories.)
The larger subject of “Closed Circuit” is the perpetually-negotiated trade-off between personal liberty and safety, an especially pertinent concern in a country with more CCTV-cams per citizen than any other in the world.
Taking the dead man’s place, lawyer Martin Vickers (Eric Bana) is representing Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), the accused ringleader of the cell that detonated the bomb. Though Martin’s defending Farroukh, for reasons of national security only former flame Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) — in her capacity as Special Advocate — can receive classified information; half of the defense team is effectively forced to act in the dark. The biggest asset of Stephen Knight’s script are mildly riveting breakdowns about the formulaic and bureaucratic minutiae involved in these divisions of knowledge, most often delivered by lightly sinister state security agent Nazrul Sharma (Riz Ahmed).
The specifics of the inevitable conspiracy should presumably be left unspoiled. Suffice to say the British political establishment isn’t playing fair, something easy to anticipate when Jim Broadbent drops in to overact the evil lurking behind seemingly innocuous government officials’ banal chatter. The implicit threat eventually devolves into people issuing threats like “your girlfriend should have kept her mouth shut,” voicing cartoonishly hawkish sentiments (“you want the freedom to attack me, but without me you wouldn’t have much freedom at all”) and attempting to kill alarming numbers of people.
MI5’s inevitably involved, acting in combination with unseen higher “powers” that can’t be named or even hinted at in the dialogue, generic paranoia that’s the same as the kind that leads Infowars readers to worry about black helicopters over Texas or a New World Order being established. “Skyfall” had the (cynical) sophistication and rhetorical sleight-of-hand to have Bond embody the hawkish sentiments of Judi Dench’s M (necessary to keep the franchise going with a straight face) while fighting a villain whose rage against MI5 is a direct result of their inept and inhumane treatment at its hands, one way of addressing post-colonial political fallout. “Closed Circuit” is comparatively muddled, settling for general alarm about prevailing conditions and too much unchecked secrecy without choosing to identify who’s responsible.
Many of the problems with “Closed Circuit” stem from a script littered with first-draft exposition (Bana summing up his recent activities at a dinner party: “what with the nasty divorce and custody battles and all that”) exacerbated by unimaginative staging. John Crowley — sporadically of film and TV (“Intermission,” “Boy A”), more experienced in the theater — is hapless at capturing one scene of dialogue after another.
It’s recently common to refer to David Fincher as the gold standard for how to handle these kinds of dialogue-heavy expository rushes, and with good reason: His ability to find 12 angles on one basic head-on and alternate them imperceptibly, keeping eyes working as actively as ears, is the secret of how potentially impossible films like “The Social Network” or (another movie revolving around a dumb conspiracy) “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” thrive, or at least function.
Not so Crowley, who handles the many exchanges with the same Editing 101 playbook: shot, reverse-shot, two-shot, repeat. Non-dialogue scenes are even worse. There’s a particularly comical moment where Rebecca Hall sits and repeatedly plays a five word snatch of Turkish that could crack the case wide open, going so far as to type it into a generic Babelfish imitation. Crowley keeps cutting from face to laptop screen and back again, not helping bring this journalist’s nightmare to interesting life. Between its ideological vacuity, regrettable dialogue and technical incompetence, “Closed Circuit” prompted unabashed derisive laughter in the normally quiet press screening room: it wants to a be a big-screen heir to BBC series like “Edge Of Darkness,” but it’s more like fan fiction self-parody.
Criticwire grade: D
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Another late summer release for Focus Features, which is currently riding high with “World’s End,” “Closed Circuit” seems unlikely to garner similar box office momentum as it hits theaters nationwide this Wednesday. Its best bet to make up for some of its losses will be on VOD.