Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Closed Circuit: They're watching us!

Closed Circuit (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

Nobody does an edgy, paranoid espionage thriller better than the British.

No doubt it comes from living under the unblinking eyes of all those surveillance cameras. (Big Brother, indeed!)

With their supposedly slam-dunk case having gone increasingly pear-shaped, Martin
(Eric Bana) and Claudia (Rebecca Hall) wonder about their next step. Trouble is,
they shouldn't even be a "they"; because of the nature of this terrorism trial, Martin
and Claudia aren't supposed to communicate ... even when each begins to worry
about pernicious surveillance.
Way back in the day, Closed Circuit would have been a tidy little B-entry, designated as the bottom-of-the-bill companion to some prestige A production. The irony is that many of those so-called B-films were far more entertaining than their big-budget cousins.

The same can be said for Closed Circuit, which outshines several of this summer’s disappointing blockbusters: better acting and directing, and a vastly superior script.

And yet, sadly, it probably won’t make a dime. Getting released immediately prior to the Labor Day weekend is akin to television’s Saturday evening kiss-of-death timeslot: Nobody will notice.

That’s a shame, because scripter Steven Knight definitely knows his way around this genre, having previously dazzled us with his twisty plots for 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and 2007’s Eastern Promises. This guy can write; he has a gift for putting ordinary people into extraordinary situations, while avoiding the burst of brilliant resourcefulness that turn American action stars into invulnerable, lone wolf superheroes.

When the two protagonists in this narrative eye each other bleakly, during a calm between storms, and acknowledge that there’s no way to put this particular Humpty Dumpty together again — no successful exit to the catastrophe — we know they’re right. The situation is beyond salvation, beyond their control.

And, maddeningly, it always has been.

Closed Circuit — marvelous triple-entendre title, by the way — opens its ripped-from-the-headlines story with a terrorist attack at a busy London market. With 120 civilians dead and the British public screaming for justice, an anonymous tip leads police to one surviving member of the suspected terrorist cell: Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto).

Preparations begin for what promises to be the trial of the century.

Six months pass, as attorneys and government officials get all their procedural ducks in a row. Then, on the eve of the trial — apparently succumbing to stress — Erdogan’s defense barrister commits suicide. The assignment then falls to Martin Rose (Eric Bana), a tenacious legal warrior with sharp observational skills and near photographic recall. Right away, Martin finds flaws in what he fears is to be little more than a scripted show trial, and his unwillingness to “play along” draws a cautionary rebuke from the Attorney General (Jim Broadbent).

Broadbent is perfect for this role, projecting hail-fellow-well-met good cheer while delivering a seemingly innocuous line ... and then, seconds later, we register the latent menace lurking beneath his deceptively bland comments, and realize that the twinkle in his eye isn’t the slightest bit friendly.

The disapproving Attorney General is the least of Martin’s problems. Because of the nature of this case, the government intends to prosecute Erdogan with classified evidence: details so secret that neither he nor his attorneys will be allowed to see or hear them. Enter a government-appointed Special Advocate, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who will have clearance to view this evidence, and then — if she so chooses — can argue for its full disclosure during a closed session in court.

Meanwhile, once she takes possession of this eyes-only material — as crisply explained by a natty government spook (Riz Ahmed, as Sharma) — Claudia cannot communicate at all with the defendant or the rest of his defense team.

I’ve no idea if justice would proceed in such a fashion across the pond, given such a case, or indeed if a “Special Advocate” even exists in the British legal system. But that’s the beauty of Knight’s script: It’s a fascinating premise, and if he made it up, he sure did a great job. It sounds plausible, and everything building from that intriguing foundation is equally persuasive.

Needless to say, the situation grows increasingly complex, giving both Martin and Claudia ample reason to jump at shadows, and wonder about the possibility that eyes are on them. If so, why?

Martin’s growing unease is fueled further by a British-based New York Times journalist (Julia Stiles) with her own suspicions ... but no proof.

And, oh yes, Martin and Claudia are compromised going in, by virtue of an affair they had some time back: a detail both absolutely should have acknowledged before agreeing to work together, and which both concealed. One little lie of omission, and now they’re compromised.

The result: a crackling, tautly paced drama.

Bana rarely gets credit for solidly anchoring projects that range from the gritty drama of Munich to the poignant fantasy of The Time Traveler’s Wife. He’s often better than his material — as with his performance as Hector, in the overcooked Troy, or his grim portrayal of the title character’s father, in Hanna — and he’s every inch the dedicated defender of justice required by this story.

Bana projects disappointment superbly. We sense that Martin’s ideals have been shattered in the past, and that he’s determined not to let it happen again. Certainly his personal life is a shambles: details deftly sketched by Knight via a few quick scenes, and even quicker comments.

That’s something else I admire about British cinema: It’s economical. At a crisp 96 minutes, director John Crowley doesn’t waste a scene. Nothing feels superfluous, with every incident, large or small, building to an eventual payoff.

Hall is a lot of fun to watch, her Claudia the epitome of a smart, accomplished woman who could cut a man dead with a few sharp retorts. Her mocking gaze is delicious, her eyes flashing an unmistakable warning: Don’t even try to pull anything on me. Claudia’s initial encounter with Sharma is a stand-out scene in a film laden with memorable verbal skirmishes: She all but chases him into a corner, not at all impressed by his air of superiority.

But then, just as quickly, we wonder: Did he let her believe she prevailed, during this first meeting?

The always engaging Ciårán Hinds plays Devlin, the congenial, unflappable solicitor who works alongside Martin. Devlin has been around the block a few times, and his rumpled deportment suggests a long-ago decision to let chips fall where they may. But some fire remains in this aging dog, and he can’t help sharing Martin’s nervous excitement, as their seemingly “scripted” case goes off-book.

Kenneth Cranham is marvelous as the crusty judge who oversees this unusual trial.

Although Knight’s script delivers what we expect from a suspense thriller, he also injects a telling note of real-world concern that is equally applicable on this side of the Atlantic: What price, protection? As graphic novelist Alan Moore asked so presciently in his career-making graphic novel, who watches the Watchmen? Who gets to decide when — indeed, if — the law should be subverted, in the cause of actual justice?

Crowley has quietly built a résumé of respectable films, starting with 2003’s ensemble dramedy, Intermission, and continuing with 2007’s crime drama, Boy A, and then a whimsical 2008 charmer with Michael Caine, Is Anybody There? Near as I can tell, the latter got no more than a hiccup release here in the States, after a screening at the 2009 Phoenix Film Festival, which explains why Crowley continues to remain unknown on our shores. Sadly, Closed Circuit is unlikely to help.

There’s no justice in that. Yes, this is a “little” film, perhaps the sort of thing one would expect to find in a movie slot on PBS or BBC America. But that’s hardly an indictment; the British film industry long ago ceased to view any distinction between the tube and the big screen, believing instead that a good cast, slick writing and solid production values succeed either way.

Closed Circuit definitely is worth time and attention, particularly for viewers who enjoy twisty thrillers. So if it doesn’t hang around long enough to be seen on the big screen — and I’m sure its stay there will be brief — then be sure to catch up with the eventual video release.

No comments:

Post a Comment