The tense opening sets the pace for British director John Crowley’s engaging thriller. A crowded London market is seen from many perspectives in multiple screens, suggesting the growing network of closed circuit cameras that watch over city streets across the world. Life fills each frame as the shoppers go about their day; attention subtly shifts to a screen showing a white truck edging illegally into the market to the shouted consternation of the facility’s manager. In an instant, an explosion fills all screens with destruction and debris.
The truck was driven by a suicide bomber and the British public sees the attack as their country’s 9/11. Dawn police raids produce a suspect, Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Turkish migrant with a shady past. Erdogan’s trial will be much watched, even though much of it will be conducted behind closed doors at the Old Bailey in accord with Britain’s secrecy laws. The prosecution’s evidence includes many secrets that concern national security.
Erdogan’s two defense attorneys are determined nevertheless to give him a fair trial. Although his barrister, Martin Rose (Eric Banna), and court-appointed special advocate, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), have had an affair, Closed Circuit’s momentum isn’t slowed one second by needless digressions or flashbacks. The lingering feelings they retain for each other (concealed behind the brittle tone of their professional interaction) is shown in cross-cutting between two lonely people in their apartments, united only by memories and a common brief to defend an alleged terrorist mastermind in a trial cloaked with secrecy.
At the heart of Closed Circuit is a counter-intelligence operation gone horribly wrong and covered up by MI5, an agency that—like its U.S. counterparts post 9/11—feels licensed by law and necessity to defend the realm by any means. The film’s architecture magnifies feelings of exposure through London’s glass towers, glass elevators and mirrored surfaces. The walls of privacy are porous. Busy streets fill with sinister shapes and prying eyes; the same faces turn up everywhere Martin and Claudia look as paranoia mounts. Is MI5 everywhere? Will they stop at nothing?
The end feels tacked on but the journey is harrowing as Closed Circuit answers the questions it raises about security versus freedom with scarcely a blink. Anchoring the cast is a small but superb performance by the great British character actor Jim Broadbent as the attorney general, issuing cryptic warnings to Martin and holding his knowledge of the bombing affair under his vest—make that waistcoat, as they say in England.