Not for the first time in the past twelve months, I was struck with an intense yearning to disagree with the majority of the American population on viewing James Ponsoldt’s The Circle.
It would be fair to say that critics across the Atlantic were not exactly kind to Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best selling novel in the wake of its Tribeca debut. Audiences too failed to warm to the film, in spite of a mightily impressive cast roster of Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and the late Bill Paxton to name just a few.
Eggers’ novel is an imperfect creation, it has to be said, but one that manages quickly and succinctly to crawl under his reader’s skin with on point observations. His is a reader who will then review the book online and ‘tweet’ their views. We’re hoisted by our own petard. Published in 2013, ‘The Circle’ is a cautionary tale of the damage that could be inflicted as a result of humanity’s increasing reliance on social media and ever advancing life technologies.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Eggers is co-responsible for the script here too, along with its director, that makes this quite so galling a disappointment to those expecting anything of the book’s unsettling conceits. The most damning review The Circle will surely ever receive is the way its distributers have so quietly dumped it on Netflix in the UK so as to avoid a cinema release.
Watson plays Mae Holland, a woman dissatisfied by her life and office job in a workplace that seems yet to have exited the early noughties. All is beige through these early indoor scenes – clothes, computers and all – and it is only when steering her kayak in an open reservoir that Mae is ever able to breathe at ease. At home, her mother (Glenne Headly) struggles both with caring for her MS suffering husband (Paxton) and trying to keep her daughter from seeing how just how hard their lives truly are.
Mae’s life is uprooted, then, when best friend Annie (Karen Gillan, given free reign with her highland-born accent) calls to announce that she’s pulling Mae from her doldrum life. Annie’s secured her an interview at the Circle – a business of Google’s business scale and Apple’s tech monopoly. Compared to the real world, life in the Circle is exciting, fresh and colourful. Workers go about their days like extras in a Silicon Valley commercial; one set in a high spec reimagining of Teletubbiland. As the old phrase goes: if it looks too good to be true…it probably is.
Unfortunately, it is at this early point of the film’s run time that The Circle drops the ball, losing its audience in a way that it’s never quite able to pull back. For one thing, the Circle itself is a mile off impressive. Blockbusters wow with expensive CGI all the time nowadays and it’s all too easy to become blasé about the skill behind the effects but the problem here is that the Circle doesn’t actually manage to outsmart the real world let alone Hollywood’s. The result is an aesthetic that feels dated from the off, never mind a decade down the line.
In Mae’s job interview for the Circle her interviewer asks what she is most scared of. Her reply? ‘Unfulfilled potential’. Setting aside just how mind-numbingly corporate such a response is, it also presents one of those frequent instances on the big screen in which a line of a film’s own script manages to nail the very flaw undermining its whole endeavour. The Circle isn’t without chills but never truly capitalises on them. Brimming with ideas that it might well be, the script opts to discuss them rather than translate them to a compulsive plot. The experience is less Her, more TED talk.
Amid the cast, Watson delivers a fine enough turn and it’s a momentarily potent twist to see Hanks, the ever-likeable everyman of so many films, in a more morally complex position. Gillan’s is the most interesting character and performance but is too quickly sidelined, as is Star Wars’ John Boyega who’s reduced to standing sullenly in the background of several scenes. Filling this roles with quite so excellent a cast can’t help but feel a little like hiring 007 to do the office paperwork.
The Circle isn’t a poor film, just a very flat one. A wordy paranoia piece that prods its often pertinent issues with a clinical and infectious disengagement. Strong signal, poor connection.