'Closed Circuit' review: A gripping dystopian thriller

'Closed Circuit' review: A gripping dystopian thriller

Photo of Mick LaSalle

Closed Circuit


Thriller. Starring Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall and Ciaran Hinds. Directed by John Crowley. (R. 105 minutes.)

The cloud of dystopian despair that we've come to take for granted in our movies has drifted all the way to Britain, as can be seen in the thriller "Closed Circuit." It depicts a world of evil terrorists warring against almost-as-evil British government officials, in which friends aren't trustworthy, old verities are defunct and nobody is safe except the stupid. Nice to know our British cousins aren't feeling too optimistic these days, either.

Eric Bana plays an English barrister who is appointed to defend a terrorist, for a crime that is something like a combination of 9/11 and Oklahoma City: al Qaeda, a car bomb, lots of casualties. Martin (Bana) gets the job because the previous barrister committed suicide. (Or ... did he? Hmm.) It's a high-profile case that will be good for his career, so long as he does a very poor job of defending his client.

"Closed Circuit" is steeped in the details of English law, and rather than being obscure or arcane, these details ground the film and give it an authentic air. Apparently, in such cases, there is the main defense barrister, but then there is another barrister charged with conducting the investigation. And the peculiar thing is that the two barristers can't be in contact with each other while the investigation is taking place. This becomes a matter of some importance over the course of the movie.

In essence, the two lawyers must collaborate in the dark, which might be tricky under normal circumstances, but in "Closed Circuit" is downright alarming, as both start getting separate pieces of a complicated and frightening puzzle. No surprise, there are also personal complications: Martin and Claudia (Rebecca Hall), the investigator, used to be lovers, etc. Actually, the personal details, in the hands of these actors, seem more than perfunctory, and Martin's characterization as a ladies' man with a messy home life makes for a colorful touch of weakness.

Neither protagonist is a heroic type. He is crusty, impatient, slightly superior, and she is a humorless stickler. But they find themselves thrown into a situation in which they have to be either much better than they are or much worse. It's an uncomfortable choice.

We'll avoid going into plot specifics here. But to speak generally, "Closed Circuit" is about two lawyers whose lives become endangered as they get closer and closer to a secret that powerful entities would like to keep under wraps. What's peculiar about the movie - both a flaw and a virtue - is that neither is trying to do anything of tangible importance. That is, they're not trying to prevent some terrible event from taking place. They're really only trying to hold up concepts, but important ones, like honesty and the rule of law. And they're trying to survive.

So on one side you have people fighting for something nebulous and right, and on the other side you have elements within the government fighting something tangible (terrorism) but doing it in ways that are immoral, illegal and murderous.

This makes the barristers' struggle less than completely riveting, in that they might be working to uphold something that no longer exists. For all their worldliness and cynicism, they may be children in a world of adults, fighting a lost cause. This makes for less drama, but in the end might be the point.

In addition to Bana and Hall, Jim Broadbent is outstanding in a couple of scenes, as a government official, watching from the sidelines and offering warnings and advice. Broadbent is somehow menacing, pathetic and persuasive all at the same time.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com