By Niall McArdle
The British conspiracy thriller is a beast like no other. It generally involves clubbish Oxbridge types, mistrust of the Establishment, and ancient Whitehall mandarins, and is rooted in the British class system. It necessitates the idea that MI5 and its sister service, MI6, are simply not to be trusted, and are both run by an Old Boy network that will always close ranks. The granddaddy of them all is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or several other Le Carre pieces, and it includes such admirable entries as Defence of the Realm, The Whistle Blower, Dead Head, A Very British Coup and State of Play.
Closed Circuit would like to join that club, but although it has an intriguing premise and feeds off current concerns about terrorist sleeper cells and invasions of privacy, I found it only okay. It plays like an episode of Spooks crossed with Rumpole of the Bailey.
There are 500,000 CCTV cameras in London, so Londoners can forget any notions of privacy, and Closed Circuit has a paranoid feel, with characters being monitored by cameras everywhere. Two of these characters are barristers Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, and after a murderous bombing, they are appointed to defend the suspect (Denis Moschitto). Hall is his special advocate, meaning she will act for him if and when the trial goes in camera, so Hall and Bana are not allowed to have contact or discuss any secret evidence that either uncovers.
There’s much discussion as to how well a client can be defended in such a system, which is one of the more interesting aspects of the script. Of course, because this is a movie with two attractive leads, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bana and Hall have a romantic history, which would compromise them, and which for various reasons they don’t reveal to the court.
The film has all the elements essential for this genre. Nothing and nobody is what they seem. The secrets are there to cover other secrets. Hall guesses someone has been in her apartment because she’s such a neat freak she notices a book has been moved by an inch. The Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) takes Bana out to breakfast to give him a friendly warning that his career is about to be over. There’s an investigative journalist (Julia Stiles) to provide a lot of exposition and warn Bana (they meet under a tree in the open space of a park, presumably because meeting in an underground car park is the reserve of Deep Throat). The MI5 man (Riz Ahmed) flirts with Hall: he later tells her he’s fighting men who want to see her “wrapped up in a mask the moment you look like a woman.” A spy tells Bana that he is the sort of plonker who wants the freedom to attack MI5, but if it wasn’t for MI5 he wouldn’t have that freedom. Unfortunately, that little speech doesn’t develop into a full-blown “you can’t handle the truth!”
I think the reason I didn’t fully engage with Closed Circuit is because although it has all the standard thriller elements, it lacks a certain energy. Bana looks good in a three-piece suit, but doesn’t really seem to act like a man who’s in mortal danger. Hall – except for one quick moment – seems similarly enervated. Aren’t thriller heroes supposed to be pluckier than this? Ciaran Hinds appears, and he’s as good as always (and for once gets to act in his native accent), but seeing him with Bana reminded me that the film doesn’t have the same tension and urgency of Munich.
There’s also an awful lot of repetition. A learns secret X. A tells B about X, who then tells C about X. I think I heard the same piece of information repeated three times. Did the scriptwriters not trust the audience to follow along? The big reveal of the identity of an MI5 agent won’t surprise you: when you meet someone at a party who says they’re “just a boring civil servant”, be careful what you tell them.
Verdict: Two and a half barrister’s wigs out of five