Piers Marchant on Closed Circuit: “Who is watching the watchmen?”August 28, 2013
Cast: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Denis Moschitto, Jim Broadbent, Ciarán Hinds
Director: John Crowley
Rating: R,for language and brief violence
Running time:96 minutes
By Piers Marchant
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels
On a brilliant, sunny morning in London’s bustling Borough Market, a terrorist bomb suddenly explodes, killing dozens and sending a plume of grey dust in the air. We watch the moment up until the detonation from many different angles on a growing multitude of smaller and smaller split screens — London’s infamous network of cameras catching the scene from countless positions. And yet, for all that we can see before the explosion knocks the cameras off their perch, there is still a staggering amount of necessary information of which we are still completely unaware. In John Crowley’s new political thriller, it’s what is still left beyond the camera’s reach that is of the most importance.
Shortly after the explosion, an arrest is made: Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Turkish national, rousted out of his bed with his anguished wife and teen son looking on in horror, and taken to a high-level prison to await his trial. It’s a huge case — the attorney general (Jim Broadbent) calls it “the biggest murder trial in British history” — made even more complicated by the necessity of bringing on what in the English justice system is known as a Special Advocate, a separate member of the defense team who is there only to review the highly sensitive classified evidence that the government has deemed a matter of national security. That evidence, they must present to a closed court, out from the eye of even the leading defense barrister, so as not to out any top-level secrets.
When the initial defense lead commits apparent suicide, Martin (Eric Bana), the new man they bring in to take over, is left in a bit of an ethical quandary. The appointed Special Advocate is Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), a woman with whom the roguish Martin has conducted a past illicit affair. Even with such an obvious conflict of interest already between them, both career-minded barristers are unwilling to give up the case of their lives, so they press on, to their eternal detriment.
You see, it happens that Erdogan might have turned out to be a paid undercover operative of Mi5, England’s answer to the NSA, a snagging detail that could threaten to produce the single worst political scandal of the century if ever revealed.
Working from a screenplay by venerated scribe Steven Knight, Crowley’s twisty thriller begins like gangbusters, virtually dripping with intrigue and smoky complication, but soon enough, it runs aground, flummoxed by its unrelenting plot contrivances, and paper-thin characters. No one is given much of a personality and everyone’s motivations are so shady and measured, it’s hard to get any kind of rousing momentum as the film slides into its increasingly clunky third act. It comes on like LaCarre, but closes like something Dean Koontz would feel silly for having written.
It doesn’t help that the leads, though certainly engaging in their own right, don’t offer much in the way chemistry between them. A crucial misfire, it turns out, because without it, very little can be salvaged of their relationship. They don’t seem like helplessly doomed lovers, they just seem spoiled and more than a little reckless professionally.
The film does have something of merit to say about the nature of our ever-more monitored society and the resulting paranoia that can turn otherwise perfectly reasonable people into haunted, tortured souls (there is a reason, after all, that one of the most prevalent characteristics of mental disorder is the growing sense that everyone is out to get them), but this comes a bit late to the party as far as that goes, and none of it can absolve the film of its more conveniently idiotic conceits. Given their lack of knowledge in the ways of advanced escape and evasion techniques, the manner in which they successfully hide out from a swarming team of Britain’s most heralded national security operatives in a location one of the protagonists spends significant time in every day, is positively baffling.
Still, no matter how flawed the premise and silly the execution, one element the film raises seems exceedingly relevant. With its prevalence of cameras, London might be the most closely monitored city in the world, but the people and organizations behind all those lenses are every bit as failed and flawed as the rest of us. In the end, as Alan Moore might suggest, who is watching the watchmen?