(On Cable TV, August 2014) It may or may not be a trend, but I’ve now seen three post-9/11 British thrillers about terrorism in the past 18 months (Dirty War, Cleanskin and now Closed Circuit), and they all eventually end up concluding that their secret services are to be feared just as much as the terrorists. The setup, in Closed Circuit‘s case, promises a bit less than full-blown paranoia: As the case against a terrorist heats up, two lawyers are asked to take the suspects’ defense, one operating publically while the other one defends the client in secret court. The suicide of a previous lawyer assigned to the case weighs heavily in the picture. When both lawyers (previously romantically involved, in a twist that initially promises much) discover increasingly troubling details about their client, they too become the target. The first half of Closed Circuit has a good escalation of thrills as our lawyer protagonists discover far more than expected about their client and his connections to the British Secret Services. But it all tips over to a fairly standard conspiracy/chase thriller that, in the end, doesn’t do much than shrug and deliver a weakly comforting epilogue. It’s all well and good to point at the British establishment and argue that they are all-powerful, but that’s not much of a conclusion –I expected a bit more. Still, Closed Circuit does have a few assets. Eric Bana makes for a fine protagonist, while Rebecca Hall once again plays brainy heroines like no others. Jim Broadbent is unexpectedly menacing as a political force warning our heroes against overstepping unspoken boundaries, while Ciaran Hinds once again ends up as a powerful character who can’t be trusted. (Julia Stiles is also in the film, but almost as a cameo. Anne-Marie Duff is far more memorable with even fewer appearances.) The direction is competent (with an expected visual motif of surveillance cameras), the focus on legal proceedings is fascinating in its own way and the first two-third of the script are built solidly. It’s a shame that after such a promising and unusual beginning, the conclusion disintegrates to so much generic pap that we’ve seen countless times before. At least the British pessimism is enough to keep it distinct from what a typical American thriller would have gone for.
(On Cable TV, November 2012) There’s something deliciously old-fashioned in this gothic throwback to an era where horror films were about chills rather than gore. Here, Daniel Radcliffe isn’t too bad in his first major post-Harry Potter film role as a young solicitor asked to settle the affairs of a deceased aristocrat. The tiny community in which he arrives is hostile to his presence for reasons he understands only after spending some time in a vast and spooky house cut off by the high tide. While much of the film is fairly standard supernatural horror, it’s handled with an unusual amount of grace, letting the slow pacing and the carefully creepy visuals take precedence over exposed blood and guts. There are a few visual gems–the sequence with a gunk-covered carriage solely identifiable in reflected light is remarkably effective and the lengthy overnight exploration of a gothic mansion positively drips with atmosphere. Though suitably different from Susan Hill’s original novel, the adaptation is skillful in condensing events in an even tighter time-frame. There are a few narrative ironies here and there (one of the best being that the protagonist’s early ally, played with gravitas by Ciaran Hinds, is the one that’s mistaken about the nature of the events taking place whereas all of his opponents are basically right) to enliven what is basically yet another ghost story, but The Woman in Black is well-made enough to deserve a favourable mention, especially or those looking for a more unnerving and less gory kind of horror film.