Focus Features is starting to build their own exclusive tentpole weekend each year. Marvel usually claims the opening May slot of every summer, and different studios trade off the lucrative July 4th period. But Focus has rubber-stamped the under-attended Labor Day weekend as theirs, with middlebrow adult pictures that raise some interesting socio-political issues before delving into melodramatic gibberish by the third act. These films are surprise financial successes, and portray a certain artfulness at times, with “The Constant Gardener” and “The Debt” modest potboilers with similar weaknesses ("The American" is somewhat more of a success in that regard, but cut from a similar cloth). Joining that group is the latest in that tradition, “Closed Circuit,” which delivers the same deceptively empty pleasures as the latter two, a formula that’s beginning to show its cracks.
“Closed Circuit” begins with extensive surveillance footage capturing various angles of a London market. We begin with two shots, then four, and the image keeps multiplying, displaying the mundane occurrence of shoppers milling about, customers ordering at a restaurant, lovers telling jokes. The longer this is teased out, sans music, the more we know to expect something terrible is about to happen. In this case, the literal ticking time bomb is the amount of surveillance present, as if the more we watch, and the more we violate certain liberties, the greater the odds of tragedy. It’s a blunt point made with subtle wit, punctuated by a massive explosion that engulfs each frame; telling that the carnage obscures the people, but the cameras continue to collect information, undisturbed.
A suspect is apprehended, and before you can say “state secrets,” the ensuing trial is considered closed to the public, using evidence admitted by the state but unseen to the public. Rebecca Hall is Claudia Simmons-Howe, the Special Advocate charged with overseeing the classified files, in charge of determining what should eventually be disseminated to the public at large, while the suspect’s legal team remains in the dark. Simmons-Howe nonetheless bristles not only at the bureaucracy she serves, but also the mysterious handler assigned to her who constantly breaks into her office while condescendingly giving her specific orders and subtly, queasily flirting. The script is from acclaimed writer Steve Knight (“Eastern Promises”), so these advances are unwanted without being lecherous, simply a well-written case of two people enacting an awkward power struggle.
The “sudden” death of the suspect’s lawyer leads to the appointment of Martin Rose (Eric Bana), a hard-charging type with enough past history to puncture the narrative being pushed by the government and the media. Rose is also being pressured by outside forces, as he finds himself hailing the same taxi night after night, or “randomly” crossing paths with a New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles) who may or may not have reliable information. Damningly, he’s hiding a secret: Martin and Claudia used to be an item. A reveal that they have once shared a bed, or may possibly confide in each other in the future, could shelve the trial permanently. And if Rose finds out about the actual conspiracy behind the case, he’ll have no reservations about sharing his findings with her, making them both expendable.
Bana and Hall are a good-looking couple, and it should be obvious that the film is dedicated towards setting them up once more. There’s a bit of uneasiness to this possibility, given that this could jeopardize what is called the “trial of the century”: should we root for two sexy movie stars to knock boots at the risk of a wide-ranging government coverup? This disquieting prospect is fed by the considerable lack of heat generated by the duo. Hall is immensely attractive and assertive as a principled, tough alpha female, but the physical, inquisitive Rose is also a bit of an aggressive figure. When together, their energy cancels itself out a bit, like someone making out with a mirror: you never get a sense that there is an elaborate history between each other, only that these are two independent people who feel obligated to come together. What’s more, Martin has a messy personal life, so you’d assume a man who announces himself to a crowded table that he is “divorced” would seek romantic support. But Hall’s Claudia seems too wary and principled, and the thought of her steeliness making room for her former lover despite an institutionalized distrust of everyone surrounding her seems unlikely. And again, while it’s not exactly crucial, you wish someone would comment on the age gap between Martin, who has flecks of gray in his stubble, and Claudia, who has to be at least a decade younger, and therefore a product of an entirely different generation (Bana is 45, Hall is 31).
As the mystery deepens, Claudia and Martin—who aren't supposed to be in touch with each other once she comes into contact with the classified material for the trial—end up spending a considerable amount of time together in the open, which seems to raise no flags. Perhaps it’s because part of that time is spent running from thugs: the last twenty minutes are so are mostly tired chase clichés, with a character being turned into a chaotic MacGuffin that disappears and reappears at opportune moments. It’s a film where one character is being choked out by a villain, who in the process begins loudly monologuing about their scheme, only to take a blow to the head and fall unconscious in an alleyway, as if the movie wants you to think he fades away like a videogame character. The sloppy reveals of the third act can be seen from miles away, turning this into a low-impact actioner where characters are turned into chess pieces, and the narrative’s aim is to strategically assemble the parts like a play set. Maybe the beginning is prophetic; maybe this politically-principled movie is just another blockbuster, creating characters that exist only to be blown up. [C]