Legal thrillers went out of fashion around the time Clinton left office, which is kind of a shame. Even at their most ludicrous, these twisty tales of crusading attorneys provide a minor brain buzz—the fun of keeping pace with a dedicated investigator as he or she unpacks a convoluted mystery. (Few of them are truly intelligent, but they do get the mind racing.) Closed Circuit, a faintly upscale potboiler about two lawyers snooping their way into hot water, revives some of the (guilty) pleasures of this out-of-vogue genre. Timely references to government surveillance and the ongoing war on terror can’t diminish the feeling of being transported back to the golden age of John Grisham—a time when plucky civil servants put their careers (and lives) on the line, cases were never cut-and-dry, and conspiracies always lead straight to the seemingly trustworthy character played by a suspiciously big-name actor.
Unlike most of its ’90s precursors, Closed Circuit never enters the echoed halls of an American courthouse. Its paranoia-infused plot is set instead against the backdrop of the British justice system. (Note the white wigs donned during session.) After a big-shot attorney takes a supposedly suicidal dive off a tall building, London lawyer Eric Bana inherits his high-profile case: the defense of a Turkish immigrant (Denis Moschitto) charged with orchestrating a massive terrorist attack. Complicating matters slightly is the appointment of special advocate Rebecca Hall, whose job it is to evaluate the prosecution’s classified evidence—information so sensitive that it can’t be shared with the rest of the defense team, nor the accused. Unbeknown to the court, Bana and Hall used to be romantically entangled. Different actors might have played the former lovers’ history for vintage Tracy/Hepburn chemistry, but not these two: Bana is too solemn, Hall too whip-smart, to settle for that routine. A little more levity might have benefited the movie, which feverishly crosscuts between Bana retracing his dead predecessor’s steps and Hall interviewing her client’s tight-lipped family. By the time the attorney general (Jim Broadbent, campily villainous) drops in to deliver a hospital-bed warning, it’s clear that a massive cover-up is taking shape—and that Closed Circuit will soon devolve into a series of chase scenes and less-than-shocking reveals.
No stranger to stories of murder and corruption in the Big Smoke, screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) gives his somewhat predictable material an attractive veneer of seriousness. (It helps that he seems to have done his research on the ins and outs of U.K. criminal law.) Credit is additionally due to director John Crowley, a theater vet who coaxes relaxed supporting performances out of Julia Stiles, the always-reliable Ciarán Hinds, and Four Lions star Riz Ahmed (whose intrusive MI6 agent becomes a figure of both dry humor and casual menace). The filmmaker also stages one bravura sequence—a bombing captured from a dozen different security cameras, an opening moment of suspended-in-time dread the film never really tops. Closed Circuit may be little more than a high-minded, shrewdly topical gloss on a shopworn genre, but its cynicism is bracing. The movie dares to go to a Chinatown-level of downbeat in its homestretch, right up until a final few seconds of audio that smack, blatantly and misguidedly, of focus-group compromise.