Film review – The Circle (James Ponsoldt, 2017)

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.”

So says Eamon Bailey, Tom Hanks’s character in the new science-fiction thriller The Circle. Well, you should take his advice. Knowing that this film is one you should watch for yourself is better than believing the dismissive reviews, because the fast-tracking to direct-to-streaming does a vast disservice to film that is both thought provoking and well executed.

The film stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman who begins a career at the titular company The Circle, working as a help desk assistant. She is helped through the door by an old friend called Annie (Karen Gillan), who has a considerable level of seniority at the company. It is headed up by the Steve Jobs-like Eamon Bailey (Hanks), a believably powerful visionary and motivational speaker at the top of the company. We follow Mae as she journeys into the company, becoming the saccharine champion for its upcoming products and turning herself into a genuine celebrity by becoming “transparent” and having live videos of her life 24/7 on the platform SeeChange.

It’s like she looking in a Black Mirror

When I first saw the trailer for The Circle, I was sat in an AMC cinema in New York. It looked absolutely fantastic at the time and I’d already added it my my mental list of films I needed to see this year. I was, therefore, shocked to find out that it was side-stepping cinemas here in the U.K. and heading straight to Netflix. The production and distribution companies will certainly have their reasons for doing this – namely the critical planning and commercial failure in the U.S.A. – but I can’t help but think that it hasn’t been given a fair chance.

If you’re a fan of the Charlie Brooker series ‘Black Mirror’, you will be forgiven for feeling a sense of familiarity with the film. Not only is the story exactly the kind of thing that would be covered by Brooker’s brilliant series – indeed the recent episode Nosedive is a clear touch point – but the visual realisation feels like it is part of the same universe. As the page fills up with comments, likes, stats and charts, engulfing Mae as she carries on with her normal day-to-day life, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a common element across the two productions. That said, Dave Eggers’s original novel was released in 2013 so it is quite feasible that it served as inspiration to Brooker, though the visual similarities are inescapable.

Tom Hanks plays Steve Jobs

This is a film that utilises Watson’s undeniable talents as an actress to good effect. Her character goes on a journey and Watson’s performance allows us to join her on it, despite some convenient jumps in her development. Her changing relationship with her family and best friends Annie (Gillan) and Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) are the backbone of the film. There is, of course, an extra poignancy with her parents as both Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly unfortunately passed away after filming was completed.

John Boyega, through no fault of his own, is something of a let down. His character, Ty, is one of the more obvious loose ends in the film. There is almost certainly a cut of this film that exists with more Boyega included. Instead, we are left with a character that looks on with menace in the background as the plot develops around him. His character is a co-founder of The Circle but he has fallen out of love with what his company has become. There’s a lot to work with there. Why not have a meaty argument with Hanks’s Eamon to reinforce his feelings?

This is not the Star Wars and Harry Potter crossover you were looking for

Indeed, there also seems to be a whole segment dropped from the film where Annie spirals into depression following Mae’s developing successes within The Circle, which left me wondering if I’d missed a whole segment out of the film (I hadn’t). Her jump from focused career woman to nervous wreck happens in an instant, apparently in the space of one short seminar. It’s this kind of thing that makes me wonder exactly who was calling the shots on the editing and whether they’d be better suited as a tree surgeon.

The 18-35 market in the U.K. would have been excited by this kind of film and it’s a failing of the marketing research that this wasn’t spotted. Ironically, I’m confident they have looked at analytical data and spotted the popularity of ‘Black Mirror’ on U.K. Netflix, which has led them to releasing it directly on to the platform. It’s just disappointing that this will never be released at cinemas.

To look down the listings at my local cinema and see a summer schedule full of mindless sequels, I can’t help but think the audience’s lack of imagination is being encouraged and nurtured by the larger studios’ inability to take risks.

I’m sad for everyone involved that this film won’t get a wider audience and I’m sad it was critically panned. There is an important message about modern life and the role of social media here. It’s a warning. 

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