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Closed Circuit

Eric Bana in "Closed Circuit"

Somebody's watching you

Closed Circuit

It’s all in the timing. The British thriller Closed Circuit arrives in theaters at the perfect moment, for reasons both planned and accidental.

The former: After the usual summer menu of superheroes, apocalyptic misbehavior, and other digitally devised scenarios, audiences who like their stories grounded in reality are starved for product. (Assuming they haven’t all migrated permanently to binge viewing of Orange Is the New Black and The Newsroom in their living rooms.)

The latter: Like Fruitvale Station, which opened wide the week of the George Zimmerman verdict, Closed Circuit features a premise, the ubiquity of government surveillance, at a time when Edward Snowden has us all debating that very subject.

It’s hardly the first film to take that up: Anyone remember Sidney Lumet’s slick The Anderson Tapes from 1971, with Sean Connery as a thief planning to rob an apartment building without realizing that his every move is being unintentionally recorded by security cameras and FBI wiretaps? But, at the risk of giving away too much, despite Closed Circuit’s title, the issue of Big Brother watching us isn’t really central to the story, serving mostly to add some free-floating paranoia to what is basically a legal drama.

The film opens with London shaken by a bombing at a popular market, killing 120 people. MI5, the British security agency, quickly arrests a Muslim immigrant who was recorded near the market by security cameras. Because of what it claims are connections to other ongoing investigations, MI5 requests that certain parts of the evidence be presented secretly, unavailable to either the suspect or the public. (Bradley Manning, anyone?)

To represent the accused’s interests during presentation of that evidence, a special advocate is appointed, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). She is sworn to keep what she hears secret from everyone, even the suspect’s defense attorney, Martin Rose (Eric Bana).

Wouldn’t you think someone tasked with making that appointment would have learned that Claudia and Martin had an affair a few years ago, one that broke up his marriage? If you do, you’re in the right frame of mind. This is the kind of film where what initially seem to be plot implausibilities can turn out to be clues. On the other hand, sometimes a clumsy story element is just that.

In short order, Martin and Claudia intuit that there is much more to this case than they’re being told. We of course realized that as soon as we heard that Martin’s predecessor unexpectedly killed himself: In movies like this, suicide is never simply suicide.

(Perspicacious viewers that we are, we also know that famous actors do not take small roles. If you see one in what appears to be a minor part, you can bet that he or she will be part of a third-act surprise.)

Written by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) and directed by John Crowley (Intermission), Closed Circuit proceeds like clockwork, with more efficiency than originality. It does what it does well enough, aided by a supporting cast of British actors who can make anything watchable—Jim Broadbent, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Riz Ahmed (for once not playing the terrorist). Julia Stiles also shows up, presumably for the benefit of those American viewers who wouldn’t normally watch a British drama but will come to this because they think it’s anti-government. It’s not on a par with the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, like The Parallax View. Still, even a modest entry in this genre is an unexpected treat in moviehouses these days.

Watch the trailer for Closed Circuit

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