Intricate, intelligent thrillers made specifically for grown-ups are so rare these days that it’s tempting to award extra points to anyone who even scales an attempt. Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 John le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, may have been the last great example of an adult thriller that refused to talk down to its audience. Alfredson gave you every bit of information you needed to find your way to the end of the labyrinthine plot, but you had to follow carefully to catch it all. Meanwhile, the performances—particularly that of Gary Oldman as le Carré’s sly, magnificent creation George Smiley—appealed to a separate lobe of our brains, maybe the one keyed directly to our hearts. Oldman’s Smiley, stooped and rumpled and paying a steep price for integrity, put a human spin on the complexities of Cold War intrigue. To look at that face, so composed and careworn at once, is to understand what it costs to keep cool in a mad world.
The world of Closed Circuit—the contemporary world, in which citizens have been groomed to worry that a terrorist might lurk around any corner—is just as mad as the golden era of Smiley, if not crazier. But even though Closed Circuit, directed by Irish filmmaker John Crowley, written by Steven Knight, is set in modern-day London and produced by the same people who brought us Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s curiously lacking in urgency. Eric Bana plays Martin Rose, a lawyer who’s assigned, at the last minute, to defend Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a possible terrorist accused of playing a role in a deadly explosion in a London market. The case is hardly straightforward to begin with, but, as it turns out, the government has some classified evidence that it plans to use to prosecute Erdogan, info so secret that neither Erdogan nor his defense team is allowed to see it. So the attorney general—officiously jovial, as played by Jim Broadbent—appoints a special advocate, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who is allowed to see the evidence but must not disclose its contents to the defendant or his lawyers. The hitch: Claudia and Martin used to be lovers, and the affair didn’t end well.
A story like this depends heavily on the twists, turns, and deceptions of the plot, and Crowley maintains pretty well-organized specifics. The opening, a multi-screen montage of regular citizens going about their daily business in the minutes before that bomb goes off, is artful and striking, recalling Crowley’s directorial debut, the 2003 ensemble crime caper Intermission, a clever and entertaining picture that kept multiple plot threads wriggling at once.
To Crowley’s credit, Closed Circuit is decidedly unflashy. But maybe that’s a liability: There’s a fine line between restrained and drab, and Closed Circuit falls just on the wrong side of it. The plot leans heavily on paranoia, and it’s all supposed to make us question our assumptions about terrorism and the eagerness of world governments to find scapegoats. There’s just no pulse to the story—it feels like a dutiful exercise. Shot by Adriano Goldman, the picture has a lightly burnished, businesslike glow. But Goldman’s lens doesn’t have much to work with in the people department: As a leading man, or as anything, really, Bana is handsome only in a flavorless way. His brows are earnest, his chin finely chiseled, but so little personality comes through, I always find myself wanting to add an “l” to the end of his name. He worries his way through the role like a caterpillar making a journey to the tip of a leaf; his methodical determination is admirable, but it’s not much fun to watch.
Thank God for Rebecca Hall. For some reason, Hall hasn’t quite cracked into leading-actress territory, though she’s had strong roles in movies like The Town, and reasonably visible ones in big-budget entertainments like Iron Man 3. She’s a gangly, slow-burning beauty, as opposed to the fancy-evening-gown kind; she resembles a more glamorous Mackenzie Phillips, and the more movies she makes, the better she gets. Closed Circuit, with its weighty themes, requires her to be very, very serious, and she meets that demand ably.
Somehow, she even makes you believe that this poised, alert, vibrant young woman could actually be in love with someone as dull as Eric Bana. But the role doesn’t allow her to glow at her maximum wattage: It’s a silk blouse buttoned all the way up to the neck, and Hall is too scrappy, too alive, for that kind of restriction. She needs roles that will allow her to stretch and run; Closed Circuit is a dead end.