Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Circle

Panned by critics and viewers alike, The Circle would appear to be a complete waste of time. We went to see it anyway, partly because we enjoyed the last Tom Hanks/Dave Eggers collaboration (A Hologram for the King) much more than the critics and viewers did, and I’ve very much enjoyed James Ponsoldt’s last two films (The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour). And while The Circle is a disappointment at many levels, the fact remains that it has something very important to say and provides material for hours of fruitful discussion. That alone make The Circle worth watching. 

I knew nothing about the plot of The Circle (which is based on a novel by Eggers) before we arrived at the almost-empty theatre. But now that I know it is partly a dystopian thriller and that it stars the popular Emma Watson (not to mention Hanks), it seems strange to me that there is so little interest in the film. I can only assume that negative word-of-mouth spread at a record pace through various kinds of social media, which is, of course, ironic, given the subject of the film.

But knowing its subject is guaranteed to lessen your enjoyment of The Circle, so if I have sparked your interest at all, you should watch the film before reading on (noting that low expectations are in order - this is a seriously flawed film). 

Watson play Mae Holland, who lucks out, thanks to Annie (Karen Gillan), her best friend, and gets a job in the world’s most exciting company: The Circle. Led by Eamon Bailey (Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is breaking new ground in global transparency (keeping governments honest) through the deployment of its mini-cameras and its promotion of full (and I do mean full) transparency among members of congress. Mae is at first disturbed by this, but when she experiences the benefits of such surveillance herself, she becomes its number one promoter and moves up in the company, becoming a favourite of Bailey. Mae is even willing to become the first person at The Circle to become completely transparent, wearing a camera all day long. Needless to say, major problems await.

As already mentioned, The Circle has way too many flaws, but some of the apparent flaws disappear if the film is watched purely as satire (i.e. not as a dystopian thriller warning us of some dark future but as a satire of what is already happening in our dystopian present). So yes, The Circle is didactic, hyperbolic and full of characters (especially Mae) whose actions are unconvincing, but these are forgivable problems in a fascinating (in a ‘where is this headed?’ sense) satire of our current obsession with cameras, drones, security and transparency. If only The Circle had focused more on being a satire. 

Because it doesn’t work as a thriller and what I said above does not excuse some extremely awkward scenes (one with Watson and Eller Coltrane, who plays Mercer, an old friend from home who has no use for this technology, stands out as particularly bad) or the fact that the plot lacks cohesion. The character of Tyler Lafitte (John Boyega) is the prime example of a character whose presence in the film won’t work without far more character development and far more consistency in his role in Mae’s life (a role which is entirely wasted here). Other characters suffer similar fates. 

This is not one Watson’s best performances, though her acting is hampered by the screenplay and she does fairly well with what she’s given. Hanks, as always, is a delight to watch and does an excellent job as the lovable villain. The other actors have their moments, but occasionally struggle, while Bill Paxton, in his last performance ,is effective as Mae’s father. The cinematography and score are solid. 

The Circle is not a classic, but it’s not as bad as some people seem to think it is and it has more discussable ideas (simplistic as they may be) than most of the other films currently playing - combined!. And those ideas desperately need to be discussed in our Facebook/smartphone society. I’m glad I watched it and I would watch it again (for more discussion), so I’m giving The Circle a solid ***. My mug is up.


  1. Well, first I would have to say that your review was overly kind - the writing is atrocious, much of the acting horrible (except for Hanks - and I guess Watson's acting doesn't rate as horrible and her character was written to be so hopelessly unbelievable and inconsistent that it would have been pretty tough to pull off) and one can only guess where the director's attention was. And did I mention the writing was atrocious! Terrible dialogue and unbelievable twists and a climax you could see from a mile away.

    Now if I settle down, I could point out that you are exactly right about the satire. It was almost as though someone at the last minute thought of making it a satire but they ran out of time or something. Satire would have made some scenes (like the awful ending) make sense. But they weren't "sold" as satire - and I don't mean the advertising. I mean the viewer doesn't feel like they are watching a satire and so the scenes don't work.

    And, yes, the discussions make it all the badness worth while (almost). What a great display of how great concepts (community, transparency, openness, etc) can be exploited and turned utterly ugly.

    I so much wanted to love this film. Sigh. A half-hearted **+ just for trying, but I can't lift my mug.

  2. I understand. I am currently reading the novel and will say more after that.