A terrorist attack, a murderous cover-up, a highly publicized trial and two lawyers — former lovers — forced to stay apart during the proceedings, “Closed Circuit” has all the makings for an incendiary thriller.
But this paranoid, cynical tale of terror and privacy and the ways the intelligence apparatus deals with one by stealing the other never quite catches fire. Blame it on the weak chemistry of the stars, blame it on the way the script refuses to let them develop chemistry and the perfunctory way the story is dispensed with, but the sparks aren’t there.
Eric Bana is Martin, an English barrister tasked with defending the lone surviving suspect in a mass murder terror bombing. Britain’s State Secrets act means that he’s not the only lawyer on the case. There will be evidence that cannot be heard in open court, and that, for arcane reasons, Martin will not be allowed to hear. Rebecca Hall plays Claudia, another lawyer tasked as “special advocate,” basically the attorney in charge of the suspect’s case in that closed-door part of the trial.
They cannot meet, discuss the case or share what they know with one another. That’s probably for the best, as she’s the reason his marriage broke up. Not that they tell the judge this.
The fact that the first attorney on the case killed himself sets off no apparent alarm bells, but within hours, both Claudia and Martin have reason to believe they’re under surveillance, and that the people watching may be interested in doing more than just observing.
Director John Crowley once did the lively and surprising Irish dramedy “Intermission,” and he jazzes this up with lots of split screens — as many as 15 different surveillance images capture the prelude to the terror attack. “Closed Circuit” is built on parallel threads telling the same story. We see Martin dig, make a discovery, fret over suspicious cabbies and dinner party guests (Julia Stiles is a reporter). We see Claudia interview the suspect’s family and worry over the spy (Riz Ahmed) charged with delivering evidence to her and seeing what she does with it. Neither tells the other what he or she has found out.
Jim Broadbent lets just a hint of sinister peek through as the attorney general who charges them with taking this highly public trial. We and Martin question his motives. Ciaran Hinds plays a solicitor who plays the role of “fixer,” getting them access to evidence — separately — doing background work, listening in on their meetings with the client (Denis Moschitto).
At 92 minutes, “Closed Circuit” should feel tidier and tighter than it is. Screenwriter Steven Knight dispenses with back story by having Bana and Hall’s characters blurt out exposition, sizing people up with a few pithy, memorized bits of background and profile data, sort of the “I know your type” speech. That doesn’t spare the film the inane “Keep looking” shout from the spy chief whose minions have lost track of someone (What else are they going to do?) or “OK, you know the plan” (Then why say so?). There’s no virtue in a lean script that still packs in so many things that don’t need to be said.
It feels as if there’s more story here, more movie that was lopped out. We never have time to size characters up for ourselves or invest in anyone before their lives are put in jeopardy. Bana and Hall play their relationship as deflatingly raw — not a romance that either dares to revisit. But that lowers the stakes as well.
For all the split screens that play up Britain as a surveillance state, Crowley never really ratchets up the paranoia, and never allows the juice to flow through this closed circuit.
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief violence
Cast: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Jim Broadbent, Julia Stiles
Credits: Directed by John Crowley, written by Steven Knight. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:32