If the classic John Grisham novels taught us anything, it's that being a lawyer is a dangerous job. Every case leads to a conspiracy, and each client could be one's last. Grisham's taut thrillers were engrossing and hugely popular, but quickly began to see poor imitators saturate the market place. As the millennium approached the genre's popularity began to wane, but the new British film Closed Circuit offers the best entry in years.
With a timely premise about a suspected terrorist who is arrested for allegedly being part of a plot to blow up a truck in the middle of one of London's busy markets at its center, "Closed Circuit" is a legal thriller for a new generation. Barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is assigned to defend the terrorist after the death of his former counsel. Due to the high profile of the case and possibly sensitive evidence, a special advocate (Rebecca Hall, "The Town") is assigned to help review whether the secret evidence should be made public in open court. In doing so, she and Martin uncover a conspiracy where everyone is watching them and there is no one they can trust except themselves.
Due to the barrage of British law that is thrown at viewers without much explanation, there is an adjustment period that the average moviegoer will need as the film starts. Much of the setup to the film deals with the inner workings of the country's legal system, much of which is quite literally foreign to American audiences. Getting acquainted with these laws as the film unfolds does add an additional level of mystery to the film, as tensions begin to arise and the conspiracy slowly starts to unravel.
The idea of being under surveillance and having your every move watched is a scary thought. It's also an isolating feeling, since most people would assume you're paranoid. But the film never really deals much with these issues. Martin quickly realizes that he is being watched and followed, then almost immediately accepts that there is no one he is able to trust. While he is correct in doing so, the film also begins to feel like an episode of "Pretty Little Liars," because even the smallest, most random characters seem to be working as part of the conspiracy.
The film's first half is a mysterious, paranoiac thriller where everything simmers towards a climax where everything will end up boiling over. But things fall apart as "Closed Circuit" gets closer to its climax, instead falling into a formulaic trap and becoming a British John Grisham adaptation. There's a brief reprieve as the film has a decidedly un-Hollywood ending, offering a breath of fresh air momentarily before falling back in line with the formula of standard legal thrillers. Fault for this lays more with a weak third act by the screenwriter than director John Crowley, who is able to still keep the film from feeling stale.
The script itself is elevated by the director and cast, who are more than competent to handle the material. Actress Rebecca Hall continues to shine and make a name for herself with standout performances. Aside from Hall and Bana, none of the supporting cast has anything to do. Julia Stiles pops up as a newspaper reporter that has caught the scent of the cover up, while Jim Broadbent sweeps in and out of the film as if he really were a shadowy figure. Underutilizing these supporting characters is what holds "Closed Circuit" back from being anything more than a superficial thriller.
In a nice touch of irony, "Closed Circuit" has a habit of letting important plot points happen off screen. Being that this is a film about living under the microscope of constant surveillance, it's a cop-out to kill off a character -- after only two scenes -- and later reveal the fate with a front-page headline. Also, rather than showing the epilogue, it unfolds with a voiceover laid over another scene.
With slowly building tension and a timely premise to explore, "Closed Circuit" gets off to an engaging start. By midpoint, the film doesn't know which path to follow, and it begins to fall apart. Actors get wasted without much to do and a third act begins to look like it was crib noted from "The Pelican Brief." Despite these missteps, "Closed Circuit" is a fun thriller -- even after it turns into mostly brain candy.