A bomb explodes in the middle of London, killing 120 people. Quickly, authorities zero in on a possible culprit: Farroukh Erdogan, a man with suspicious material near his premises and suspicious calls in his cellphone history. They arrest him and take his wife and son into protective custody, and all of Great Britain prepares for what some are calling the trial of the century.
Then there's this: Because the case against Farroukh involves sensitive elements of national security, part of the proceedings will take place behind closed doors, where Farroukh, instead of being defended by his own barrister, will be represented by a "special advocate"—a government official. The prosecution, instead of revealing its entire case in open court, will expose sensitive bits of evidence before only the prosecutor, the special advocate and the judge himself.
In other words, neither the defendant nor his defense attorney will know all the evidence against him. And while the defense attorney and the special advocate technically work as a team, they're not allowed to communicate once the special advocate sees the secret evidence.
In Farroukh's case, that may be just as well, given this little detail: Barrister Martin Rose and special advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe can't stand each other. Sometimes that happens with ex-lovers.
The case seems like it should be almost indefensible, anyway. Farroukh offers the most meager of explanations to shoo away his guilt. But as Martin and Claudia dig deeper, they realize that some of the elements don't add up. How was this man allowed into the United Kingdom at all, considering the criminal record he racked up in Germany? Why does a guy with so little money drive an expensive Mercedes?
Could it be that Farroukh isn't a terrorist at all, but in the pay of the British Security Service arm MI5, which used him to infiltrate a terrorist cell? Might he have double-crossed the agency? Did the terrorist cell feed Farroukh false information? And if either is true, how will MI5 ever explain its unwitting role in the attack? Wouldn't the agency do anything to keep its link to Farroukh secret? You know, locked up tight behind closed courtroom doors?
Defending a suspected terrorist, one would think, is never easy work. But it seems that defending this one may be flat-out lethal.
Both Claudia and Martin want to uncover the truth behind MI5's activities, and they work tirelessly to do so. But once they realize that MI5 is indeed involved, Martin doesn't seem as committed to expose it as Claudia does. He's a pragmatist: He realizes that Farroukh probably worked a deal with the government on the condition that he keep his secret tight. And Martin realizes that digging too much could not just harm national security, but threaten more lives. The positive here is, in short, that he's mostly concerned with Claudia's safety.
Claudia, meanwhile, wants to defend her client to the best of her ability—even if he doesn't really want her to—and expose this government-induced black eye to the world. She's an idealist who fearlessly tries to stay true to both the letter and the spirit of the law and her place within it.
Her idealism and Martin's pragmatic compassion eventually find common cause in protecting Farroukh's 14-year-old son, who escapes from the British safe house with a flash drive that could incriminate MI5. Martin and Claudia battle their country's own agents to keep the boy alive and able to appear in court the next morning.
Martin attends the funeral of the barrister previously in charge of Farroukh's case, who (they think at the time) committed suicide. The priest talks about how even the most successful people can fall into despair. That's why, he adds, "Each of us needs God. Now let us pray."
In court, Farroukh's son swears to tell the truth "by Allah."
Martin and Claudia's relationship began with an affair. We see the two of them in flashback dancing together, then holding each other and kissing sensually. Martin later instructs Claudia to meet him again in the first place they met—which, we learn, is a hotel room. Martin looks like he'd like to kiss her and renew their relationship, but Claudia gently retreats. She takes a shower, and we see a bit of her silhouette through the glass. She's subsequently wrapped in a towel, and then in a satiny, string-strapped top.
As the story goes along, we're informed that Martin's marriage ended badly, and we can see that he and his wife are on pretty bitter terms. "In so many ways, you were the worst thing that happened to me," he tells Claudia. She tells him the same.
Claudia is attacked in her apartment. She escapes by thwacking the guy in the face with a drinking glass, and her assailant's blood gets all over her blouse. She's later assaulted again in an alley—the guy wrapping a cord around her throat and nearly strangling her. Martin saves her by hitting him on the head with a big wrench. Martin, too, is sent a violent warning—in the form of a van smashing into his taxi. He winds up in a hospital wearing a neck brace.
In flashback and on security cameras we repeatedly see the blast that precipitated the whole situation. (No casualties are directly shown.) We hear about other deadly terrorist attacks. We see someone attacked in prison as security cameras around the area go dark. When the cameras flip back on, the victim is dead—hanged by a sheet. Urine soaks the man's pants.
As mentioned, Martin's predecessor in the case supposedly committed suicide, though it's strongly suggested he was killed by MI5. A reporter talking with Martin is also killed. (We learn about these incidents through newspaper headlines or funerals.)
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is used about 10 times, the s-word once. "B‑‑tard" is said once or twice, as are "h‑‑‑," "pr‑‑k" and "bloody." "Queer" is tagged to a barrister. Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Farroukh, we learn, was arrested in Germany for possessing heroin, and the man is apparently both an addict and a dealer. When he throws up during a prison interview, Claudia asks him why he's buying prison-made heroin instead of getting enrolled in the system's dependency program.
Martin brings a bottle of wine to a dinner party and jokes about getting drunk. Several characters sip wine. Claudia drinks beer. People smoke cigarettes and cigars. Martin swallows what seems to be pain medication.
Other Negative Elements
Martin and Claudia technically shouldn't be defending Farroukh at all, given their previous relationship: Both lie under oath in order to stay on the case. Someone darkly suggests that their compromised position makes them the perfect people to defend Farroukh: Their careers would be in jeopardy if anyone found out, which would naturally make them much more pliable.
London is perhaps the most closely watched city in the world. More than 500,000 cameras look down on its citizens with unblinking consistency—a fact of life that Closed Circuit reminds us of often. The movie opens with a montage of clips pulled from more than a dozen of these cameras: a pregnant woman being reminded that she'll have to change her drinking habits now, a man trying to patch things up with his wife or girlfriend over the phone, teens gossiping about fashion. And then, an explosion tears through them all. We see a flash of fire and billowing smoke.
All these cameras are intended, in part, to protect citizens from terrorism. But one of the purposes of this film seems to be to remind us that they do more than protect—they pick up our private conversations, our moments of pain that play out in public squares. And sometimes they don't even make us much safer.
That is especially true if those who man the cameras have something to hide.
Produced by the people behind Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Closed Circuit obviously has government intrusion on its mind—the sacrifices societies make to keep their people safe and the unintended consequences of those sacrifices. Stateside, the themes resonate, too, with both the Boston Marathon bombing and the NSA squabbles fresh on our minds as this movie premieres. As we strive to protect ourselves, the film suggests, we expose ourselves. There's nowhere to hide anymore. We're always being watched. And sometimes the people who have the most to hide are actually the ones doing the watching.
Closed Circuit hides something too: the secret that it could've been a "safer" PG-13-level legal thriller had it not been for all the f-words. Despite being predicated on an act of violence, little blood is shown. Though a central plot point hinges on infidelity, overt sexuality is restrained to smooches and longing looks. Unlike modern London, apparently, much goes unseen onscreen.
So in a movie about what is seen, it's actually what is heard that ends up snagging the proceedings.