The recent revelations about the long history of the American government spying on its citizens through a variety of sophisticated methods make the appearance of the British film "Closed Circuit" especially relevant. Public knowledge and even tolerance of the myriad surveillance devices that observe and report on the actions of millions of people create an oddly acceptable level of paranoia, as if to be watched in all sorts of situations were simply a normal function of everyday existence. Security cameras flicker everywhere — banks and businesses, traffic lights, public buildings, even ordinary households — insuring that none of us leads a truly private life.
"Closed Circuit" deals with a terrorist bombing in a public market in London, an atrocity that a dozen or more security cameras capture at the opening of the movie, before the explosion blanks the screen. The rest of the movie shows the efforts of a couple of English lawyers to defend the young man, Emir Erdogan (Hasancon Cifci), accused of the crime and to discover the truth of the event, a task that reveals the injustices of the British system and the malevolence of its officials.
The lawyers, Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), occupy unusual roles in the legal case. He serves as the defense attorney, while she is called the Special Advocate; although they nominally work for the defendant, under the British system they are for some reason forbidden to communicate. In an additional complication, they once had an affair, a fact that makes them vulnerable to the sort of blackmail the government, which resists any exposure of the truth, exerts on every aspect of the case.
As he studies the documents related to the case, Rose discovers a number of inexplicable facts, including the ease with which Erdogan, a convicted felon, entered England and his purchase of a Mercedes, which turn his defense into a detective story. In the process of his investigation, he realizes that the security services follow his every movement, spying on his entire life, tapping his phones, bugging his office, searching his apartment, watching him with some of the half a million surveillance cameras installed all over London, and even providing the taxicabs he uses; they also apparently murder the lawyer he replaces and an American journalist who provides him some important tips.
The movie shows some of the differences between the English version of justice and our own, not only the anachronistic and ridiculous robes and wigs the judges and lawyers wear in court, but also the fact that the government routinely conducts secret trials closed to public and press and behaves with an arbitrary abuse of power. As Rose's work leads him closer and closer to the truth, he finds that he can trust almost nobody, from a casual acquaintance at a dinner party to a colleague and mentor. The strata of falsehood, betrayal, and danger suggest the work of one of England's finest novelists, John le Carré, with some of that writer's inclination to despair.
Since so much of the plot involves stripping away layers of recent history, digging into paperwork, the painstaking work of research, the movie's tension builds slowly and inexorably with a resolute avoidance of melodrama. Appropriately, the actors, particularly Eric Bana, perform their roles with impressive restraint; even the head of British intelligence and the smug Attorney General deliver their threats with understated menace. And of course they employ the justification of their behavior with the ancient excuse of tyrants everywhere — they act violently and criminally for reasons of state, to protect the nation and its people.
In keeping with the darkness of its theme, much of the action in "Closed Circuit" takes place in shadow, in dimly lit rooms, the night time streets of London. The camera rarely shows the historic London that anyone knows, with only one important and decidedly ironic shot of Westminster Abbey, focusing mostly on the interiors and exteriors of the contemporary city, complete with policemen armed with submachine guns and those ubiquitous security cameras.