Labor Day weekend is by far the slowest of the long holiday weekends for the box office. Distributors know this, they’ve banged every drum and blown every whistle to try to change it, but it seems that a collective back-to-school/end-of-summer funk descends over audiences and they just won’t get their butts onto seats. Unless you are lucky enough to be in Telluride or Venice this weekend, whose festivals officially kick off the awards season, cinemas are serving the dregs of what is available for release. John Crowley’s Closed Circuit is no exception.
There was some effort by Working Title’s marketing and PR department to garner interest among the ‘cerebral drama’ crowd by sowing the notion that this film is akin to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Right off the bat, that beloved classic thriller is set in the Cold War, when the Iron Curtain firmly divided the Western Bloc’s moral rectitude from the foulness of communism, or what we are now beginning to realize is more likely the innate nefarious pathologies of Russian culture in general, no matter the political structure under which it cloaks itself. As Closed Circuit rightly points out, we are living in a time of intense moral ambiguity; governments are caught in a relentless damned-if-the-do-damned-if-they-don’t conundrum and are often obliged to turn on their own citizens — particularly their Muslims — in order to protect the greater whole.
There is another basic problem with comparing this original script to Le Carré: as a storyteller, screenwriter Steven Knight is not a patch on the master of spy novels. Forget the flat, cookie-cutter characterizations — they are forgivable, especially when you’re handling high-level British lawyers. The issue is there are too many forced plot twists in Closed Circuit, and Le Carré has always been seamless in his smooth verisimilitudes, and he’s as graceful as a prima ballerina taking a bow en pointe in tying up his loose ends.
Following the suicide bombing of the crowded Borough Market in South London, a Turkish suspect is quickly apprehended and charged as the mastermind. But the trial must be closed to prevent release of sensitive MI5 information. The barrister in charge of the defence commits suicide in the middle of pre-trial investigations, and Martin Rose (the grossly underused Eric Bana) is brought in to defend the alleged terrorist. The problem is Rose’s partner on the defense team is a special advocate appointed by the Crown, Claudia (Rebecca Hall), with whom he is not meant to communicate during the pre-trial period – she has access to the MI5 files and he doesn’t — and yet the two have had a romantic relationship in the past that ended disastrously, but they still have feelings for each other, so you know that vow of separation isn’t going to hold. As is the norm for this genre, agendas are not what they appear to be, particularly the government’s. The heroes must try to right the murky wrongs placed before them, all the while trying to keep their hands off each other, which is always easier for Brits than it is for Americans or Australians.
My instant reservation about Knight’s script, which does a good job of avoiding too much expositional dialogue by shifting it to the usual rapid-cut TV news reports, was that the broader American audience would have trouble following basic character elements like the difference between a barrister and a solicitor. In America we just call them all lawyers or attorneys, but in this film you’ve got the works: a solicitor (Ciarán Hinds), who is the client’s actual lawyer (solicitors generally do everything but argue in court); the special advocate (Hall’s character), who is mandated by the Court; the barrister (what Americans would call a litigator), or Bana’s character, who is retained as custom by the solicitor; and the Attorney General (Jim Broadbent), who is the same person in this country. If I hadn’t run my own business in London for many years, I’m not sure I would have followed the distinct functions of the characters and their individual protocols. I believe this distraction hampers the drama greatly for non-Commonwealth viewers. (I did have a chuckle that a brief restaurant scene takes place in a superlative Sichuan joint in Chinatown where I used to take one of my solicitors, who looks a bit like a leaner Eric Bana.) There is another glossarial issue with immigration terminology particular to the UK, i.e., a “Leave to Remain,” their equivalent of a green card, which I only know about because I have one.
John Crowley’s direction is much like London itself: handsome and stately. Notable is his juxtaposition of Ye Olde Bailey London with the bleak Vancouver-style modernist high rises that have coated the area surrounding the legal district like steel-and-glass plating. He and Knight successfully coil the drama tightly for the first two acts, but the third act is more of a deflating default than a payoff of that tight dramatic coil, a narrative failure I’m seeing quite a bit these days (e.g., Elysium), as if there’s some sort of general ennui in the film business that is causing writers and directors to give up before the end because it’s too much bother. Or maybe summer of 2013 films are meant to reflect the torpidity of the season; after all, this is the summer that studio caution finally sank the box office. In any event, Closed Circuit has to have one of the most indifferent endings I’ve seen in the genre. It even has a coda, a device that only works if it’s surprising and leaves the audience with a Whoa! feeling. The ending of Life of Pi (the book) — that Pi might have hallucinated the entire story of the tiger — is an example of an effective coda. In Closed Circuit you’re left feeling like the lizard scampered off and left its tail wiggling limply in your fingers.
Australia breeds a certain type of jagged brutish hunk, and Eric Bana is somewhat an example of that, although Hugh Jackman and Mel Gibson are more typical. I can never look at Bana without remembering his hilarious feral sociopath in Chopper (“Choppah!”). In the beginning of Closed Circuit I struggled to connect him with a plausible British barrister, but I soon allowed him to carry on — in fact, his Martin Rose is a lot like a couple of fitness-crazy, super-achieving lawyers I know in London.
The way Rebecca Hall accents her words and punctuates her phrases with her eye movements and quivers of lip are what allows her to add gravitas to her beauty. Her looks and her performances feel so American for some reason that it always comes as a shock to find out she’s really English. I’ve decided after seeing Closed Circuit that I prefer her in her native accent. Hall is an Americanized English rose, and that’s entirely appropriate for this era, when the cultural-behavioral lines between the two countries are more blurred than ever.
The real shame about this film is the same as Lee Daniel’s The Butler: the missed opportunity. The title refers to government surveillance of its citizens (as well as a closed courtroom, I presume), and that has never been more relevant that right now with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and other Wikileaks shenanigans. The film opens with surveillance camera footage and intercuts with it now and then, but that is never used for more than stylistic and atmospheric purposes; in other words, it has zero relevance to the plot and is something of a red herring, as is the inclusion of a The New York Times journalist played by Julia Stiles. Red herrings are precarious plot devices that can easily go bad and stink up the whole piece by distracting the audience and making them feel they’ve been duped, particularly when the resolution of the main story is so limp and unsatisfying, as is the case here.
Going back to releasing schedules, I have no idea why Closed Circuit is being released wide and Brian De Palma’s Passion, starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, is going into art houses. Is it because Closed Circuit is a studio film (Working Title is owned by Universal) but Passion isn’t? I’m going to see the latter film at some point this weekend at the newly renovated Sundance Sunset. If I were you, I’d do the same and wait for Closed Circuit to stream on Netflix.