Steven Knight asks, ‘Who’s watching the watchers?’
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Screenwriter Steven Knight has the narrative nose of an investigative journalist. His screenplays for films like “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises” took audiences down dark alleyways complete with noirish thrills and gritty kink that tapped into our desire for raw voyeuristic experiences beyond the pale, but there was always the gnawing sense that these worlds contained a frightening core of truth in the details. Knight’s writing made us believe that we were a bit like Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), the young naïve protagonist from David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” who discovers a severed ear in a field and begins to realize that his sleepy hometown isn’t quite the place he imagined as a kid growing up there. Knight’s tales are set where nightmares intersect with our waking lives.
His latest, “Closed Circuit,” continues the trend, opening up in post-9/11 England with the trial of a suspected terrorist mastermind, the man behind the bombing of a busy open market, which was captured on the surveillance feeds of several closed circuit cameras in the vicinity. The film presents a switching back and forth between the actual events of the day in question and the cameras. It is unnerving not because we, as an audience, haven’t seen this presentation before, but because it is now rooted in the real world of the war on terror, forcing us to confront questions of the nature of surveillance in our daily lives and its impact on our civil liberties.
In the States, we have national security agencies tapping and collecting phone data/records, using GPS positioning to keep track of our movements and we freely use social media as a means of self-policing. In Great Britain, as well as in other parts of the world, the eyes in the sky – not always so high above – watch intently, but the concern in Knight’s contemporary dystopian thriller is what happens when it’s the watchers who have secrets that get exposed by the cameras. How far are they willing to go to cover their own butts?
Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is a defense lawyer brought in to take over the case of the terror suspect after the primary lawyer on the team commits suicide. Due to the nature of the proceedings in English courts in cases of national/international security, a two-defense team approach applies, one that limits the presentation of sensitive information. Thus, Martin gets paired with a second defense lawyer, here it is Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who sifts through the potentially damaging elements, petitioning directly to a magistrate to determine what can and cannot be added into the public record.
The two lawyers, while on the same team, cannot directly share information with one another without compromising their case.They are also not supposed to have background experiences that would conflict with their ability to objectively handle their jobs, but Martin and Claudia, in fact, have a history of infidelity, known only to a select few, that will complicate their working relationship and potentially endanger much more than their case.
While “Closed Circuit” avoids the pervasive creepiness that made “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises” so effective, there is a solid workmanlike efficiency in the execution of the plot that approximates journalistic adherence to only the pertinent facts. For instance, Knight never lets us forget that Martin and Claudia have a past romantic entanglement to deal with, but he also doesn’t pander to us by indulging in a cheap re-visitation or flirtation between the two. He and director John Crowley (“Boy A”) keep their noses to the grindstone and reveal a penchant for polemic posturing that, while a bit preachy, lays out a familiar gospel of modern truth that should not be ignored.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.