‘Closed Circuit’: Looking over your shoulder

August 26, 2013

closee circuit

The paranoia that a terrorist attack – and the resultant media clusterpluck – creates is palpable. Don’t believe it? Hello – the Patriot Act? An overreaching NSA?

So John Crowley’s “Closed Circuit,” arriving in the wake of the Bradley Manning decision and the ongoing Edward Snowden affair, is more than timely: It’s the most chilling film of the year, more frightening than any horror film because it seems so real.

Written by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”), “Closed Circuit” begins with a bombing in a London marketplace: a truck that explodes killing dozens. Almost immediately, London police arrest a suspect, an Arab immigrant with ties to the bomb factory where the explosive was constructed and to the truck that exploded.

But there’s a catch: This case is considered so potentially critical to national security that the British government invokes special procedures. There is sensitive, top-secret evidence against the defendant, Farroukh (Dennis Moschitto), which is not available to his court-appointed defense attorney, Martin Rose (Eric Bana). Rather, another court-appointed attorney, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), will be allowed to review the material and argue in court about which of it can be seen by Rose and used in defending his client.

Just to make things difficult, Rose and Simmons-Howe aren’t allowed to communicate with each other, again in the interest of national security. And oh, by the way, the two of them are antagonistic former lovers whose affair was one reason Rose’s marriage collapsed.

Still, each begins to move forward, with Rose and his investigator, Devlin (Ciarin Hinds), doing spadework to figure out what the government has on their client. When they finally meet with Farroukh, Rose figures out that, in fact, there’s more at work here than simply a sensitive case of terrorism.

I won’t go farther than that, although the TV commercials give away a key plot point. Suffice to say that what Rose and Simmons-Howe uncover involves a government cover-up, one for which British intelligence is more than willing to kill to keep hushed up.

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“Closed Circuit” generates an electrifying level of tension and just plain fear. London, it seems, is one of the most-watched cities in the world: As the title implies, there are video cameras everywhere, spying, observing, recording. It begins to dawn on Rose and Simmons-Howe that they are not only pawns, but pawns in a game where the master players already have anticipated all of their moves and are able to watch and even manipulate their every action.

These days, the genuine thriller is an endangered species. Too often, writers and filmmakers will paint their characters into a corner, then solve their plot dilemma with guns. It’s a cheap, easy plot device, one that narrows the story options to a boring minimum. Add in automatic weapons and you’ve drained all suspense from a piece completely.

“Closed Circuit,” however, is smarter and, as a result, more intense. England doesn’t have the kind of gun culture that the U.S. (and, as a result, Hollywood) does. (But then, really, who does?) Crowley and Knight understand that quiet uncertainty can be infinitely more exciting and unnerving than the loud rat-a-tat of machine guns and Uzis.

Instead, this film is about that sinking feeling that you’ve already been outplayed and that scrambling for your life is your only alternative. “Closed Circuit” builds suspense the way a snowball rolling down a mountain builds size and momentum. It’s unsettling in the same way as such classic films as “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Parallax View,” the ultimate conspiracy thriller.

Bana makes Rose a prickly, self-involved type who may be too smart for his own good – someone whose anger is both a weakness and a weapon. Hall is his match as Claudia: She’s crisp, brisk but not immune to the kind of fear which, it begins to dawn on her, she should be paying attention to.

The supporting cast is just as good, from Hinds as the seen-it-all investigator to Jim Broadbent as the attorney general overseeing the case (with a wonderfully oily evasiveness) to Riz Ahmed, as the overly polite MI5 liaison to Hall and her preparations.

“Closed Circuit” is top-notch, a thriller that produces genuine thrills. Or perhaps those are cold shivers of recognition down your spin. Even as you finish watching this film, you walk away wondering who may be watching you.

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