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Eric Bana in Closed Circuit - H 2013
Focus Features

Closed Circuit: Film Review

3:00 PM PDT 8/25/2013 by Stephen Farber

The Bottom Line

Well-acted British courtroom drama never really delivers the necessary thrills

Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall star in the crime thriller directed by John Crowley and written by Steven Knight.

A new movie from Steven Knight, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things, and John Crowley, the director of Boy A, sounds tantalizing on paper. Those were two of the best British movies of the last decade, so the collaboration of these two filmmakers on Closed Circuit raises high hopes. The late August release date and the lack of advance buzz tend to undermine those expectations, and unfortunately, nothing about the finished film lives up to the promise of their earlier efforts. (Knight also wrote David Cronenberg’s excellent film, Eastern Promises.) It’s unlikely that this competent but lackluster thriller will be in theaters for very long.

The movie opens, quite literally, with a bang. A terrorist bomb goes off in a bustling London market. Almost immediately, police zero in on a suspect: Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Muslim man with a shady past and links to a terrorist cell operating in London. As the authorities prepare for a trial which is intended to reassure a jittery public, they hire two people to defend Erdogan: a reluctant barrister, Martin Rose (Eric Bana), and a Special Advocate, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), the only person who will have access to the highly classified evidence against him.

The peek inside the British legal system is intriguing; the film seems to have made with considerable accuracy. Perhaps inevitably, a romantic element has been added as a sidebar. Martin and Claudia had a love affair several years ago that ended badly, so they go into the case wary of each other as well as of the government bigwigs who are trying to manipulate them in order to insure a guilty verdict. As the two attorneys meet the prisoner and begin to pursue the case for the defense, they become convinced that the government is hiding something. Martin’s predecessor on the case ended up dead, reportedly a suicide but perhaps a victim of foul play. Soon their own lives are in jeopardy as they uncover a conspiracy in high places.

The plot is knotty and often convoluted, though its contours eventually become clear as other bodies pile up. A persistent problem is that all the legal rigmarole, though interesting up to a point, becomes fairly dry and hermetic. The basic message seems to be not to trust anyone in the highest intelligence circles, but after dozens of spy thrillers, that isn’t exactly startling news. Many of the plot twists are predictable, and even when they aren’t, they are too rarefied to generate bare-knuckle tension. For example, there’s an elaborate set-up for a meeting at a crowded soccer stadium but no real payoff in terms of life-and-death action.

This means the movie depends on the actors to supply some of the urgent drama missing from a rather bloodless script. They do what they can to raise the stakes. Bana gives a competent though not inspired performance; he’s best in scenes of seething anger. Hall demonstrates again that she is one of the best actresses working; her courtroom arguments bring urgency to scenes that might have been awfully dry. Some acting lions -- Jim Broadbent as the Attorney General, Ciaran Hinds as a colleague of Martin’s and Kenneth Cranham as a grizzled judge -- give the proceedings a sense of gravity and authority, even if their roles are disappointingly thin. Riz Ahmed, who starred in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, brings a note of silky menace to his role as a mysterious MI5 operative.

The film is handsomely made, with a nice mix of settings, from the Old Bailey to crowded immigrant neighborhoods. A couple of scenes toward the end do generate the suspense that the whole movie needed. But the impact is too muted, and an air of tired familiarity ultimately curdles the entire enterprise.

Opens: Wednesday, Aug. 28 (Focus Features)

Production: Working Title Films

Cast: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Kenneth Cranham, Anne-Marie Duff, Julia Stiles, Denis Moschitto

Director: John Crowley

Screenwriter: Steven Knight

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Chris Clark

Executive producers: Tim Owen, Liza Chasin, Amelia Granger

Director of photography: Adriano Goldman

Production designer: Jim Clay

Music: Joby Talbot

Costume designer: Natalie Ward

Editor: Lucia Zucchetti

R rating, 95 minutes