There is no major city in the western world more populated with closed circuit cameras than the city of London. Real life villains of the past, now retired, have publicly stated how difficult it is to commit a crime on the streets of London without it being watched and recorded.
There’s also no governmental system more secret than the British. The Official Secrets Act is there to protect official information, usually enforced during matters of national security. The Act is a law, not a contract, so whether you sign the OSA or not is of little relevance; you are bound by it. To break the Act is to commit a capital offense. It’s also a very convenient law for those within the government who want certain underhanded actions kept secret, and in some extreme cases, perhaps enforced to protect themselves. There are no written words determining which actions are legal. For the record, the United States does not have such an act. The American Espionage Act of 1917 remains, but much was struck down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional. In British politics, it is a way of life.
It is good to know some of this when watching the new, taut thriller from director John Crowley, Closed Circuit. It’s not that your enjoyment nor understanding of the events that unfold throughout the film will be diminished, but it helps. It might also stop you from asking, “Does this happen here?” Think of it this way; if President Nixon could have enforced the British law of the Official Secrets Act when he was in office, I doubt whether we would have known anything about Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein might have gone to jail.
In Closed Circuit, a bomb explodes. One hundred and twenty people are killed, and the once bustling and thriving Borough Market area is now a huge hole in the ground. During the opening credits we see the daily life of the London shoppers in the doomed market area going about their business, unaware of their fate. We see it through the eyes of the closed circuit TV screens, the same screens that the investigators will pour over until they come across that one recording that will give them a clue. The clue comes in the shape of a truck that parks itself where it shouldn’t park.
What follows is a courtroom drama presented as a thriller. A suspect is arrested for the bombing, but there’s something not quite right. The suspect appears to have ties to the British Secret Service. To have him on the stand in open court is the last thing anyone in the British Government wants – classified information would be revealed, secrets would be made public, and the actions of certain government officials would be disclosed – so the suspect is assigned two lawyers; one will be the defense attorney for the open court sessions and one government-approved Special Advocate for the closed, secret evidence sessions. Because of the law, the two lawyers representing the same client cannot share certain information with their defendant nor with each other. To make matters more complicated, the two assigned lawyers, Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, were once lovers.
Closed Circuit has its characters continually looking over their shoulders no matter where they go. It’s an exercise in extreme paranoia, and for the most part it works well. Knowing that their lives are at stake, the two lawyers meet in private, even though they know they are not supposed to confer. “We’re not strong enough to fight them, are we?” Hall’s character asks. “No,” responds a reluctant Bana. The them that Hall’s character is referring to are not the terrorists, it’s the very people working from the government who hired them in the first place. In a case where the judge decides what evidence can be put before a jury and what can’t, everything is against the lawyers, not to mention that their actions, no matter how private, are often observed by closed circuit cameras. Everyone knows what they’re doing and where they are at almost any given moment.
The widescreen cinematography is unfussy and well-framed and gives you the chance to explore the faces on the screen before cutting away. Performances are uniformly good throughout, and the film successfully conveys that sense of constant fear and suspicion. Even though, outside of the bomb explosion, there is little action to follow, your heart races in anticipation of what might happen to the two characters. Closed Circuit effectively grips.
The conclusion is not one that you will want, and certainly not one that will satisfy, but it’s close to what might really happen if Closed Circuit was a true story, and that makes everything a sad state of affairs. When the excellent Jim Broadbent as the Attorney General, the top lawman in the country, publicly states under questioning that the British legal system is transparent and has integrity, in this case he’s lying through his teeth, and we know it. You have to wonder if oily types like him, and others in the government who use the Official Secrets Act as a personal protective shield, realize that in this story, as in life, they’re the ones who are really the villains.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 96 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)