Despite inconsistencies, James Ponsoldt’s paranoid portrait of technology & privacy impresses.
To say The Circle has had an interesting journey to UK screens is an understatement. After a band of promising trailers, landing the film on many must-watch lists, it opened in the US to crushing reviews, and dismal box-office performance. Considering the calibre of its performance banquet, when Netflix suddenly stepped in and secured the film for European release, many were confused and concerned.
How could an Emma Watson and Tom Hanks techno-thriller, from director James Ponsoldt – one of the most consistently impressive independent filmmakers – become what is essentially a straight-to-DVD release? Yet in many ways, its placement on Netflix is beautifully apt. Like the eponymous business at the heart of this paranoid piece, the streaming service connects millions worldwide everyday. It has the power to reach audience groups far wider than merely domestic, and its impact upon the film industry in general is little short of biblical.
Watson stars as Mae Holland; an unfulfilled twentysomething living at home with her ailing father, stuck in a dead-end job. Her life takes a dramatic, and hugely exciting, turn when long-term friend and globetrotter Annie (Karen Gillan) calls, landing her an interview at The Circle; an enormous, and immeasurably powerful, internet company. Think Google on steroids. Crushing the opportunity, she lands a base-level job at the firm with a selection of other “guppies”; an affectionate term for newbies brandished by the enigmatic Eamon Bailey (Hanks); co-founder, and head, of the organisation.
Mae’s way of life is altered in manners she never deemed possible here. The processes of communication and interaction surpass the perimeters of friendship and support, and The Circle’s gigantic Silicon Valley-esque site provides facilities and opportunities far greater than a measly nine-to-five. There’s yoga, recreation services, and even a nightclub. Quickly Eamon and fellow founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswald) take a shine to Mae, and her profile within The Circle becomes stratospheric among her peers, but with the help of a mysterious colleague (John Boyega), she starts to worry about the damaging implications the business has on personal privacy, and the collection of sensitive information.
Like many fellow works in the thriving sub-genre of techno-thrillers, The Circle does suffer from what one calls the “eye roll” syndrome. So audacious and outlandish do the digital processes and capabilities become that it teeters on, and occasionally succumbs to, stupidity. We live in an unprecedented technological age, where everything really is possible with the right work ethic, finance, digital evolution, and business model, but we aren’t quite at the levels showcased in Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel. That being said, seeing the extent of exploration and innovation within the company, and indeed the feature film, is undoubtedly impressive. It takes steps, nae leaps, making for an engrossing and stimulating watch.
Co-written by author Eggers, the film sports a textured and enveloping central protagonist in Mae. She progresses through the zippy narrative in unexpected ways, and explores the philosophy and foundations of The Circle to manners which defy the traditional developments of similar heroines. So easily could Ponsoldt’s latest stay linear; see Mae arrive, and then quickly notice issues and illegalities which send her on a quest to corrupt from the inside, but we thankfully venture a different path. She becomes more than an employee here, rather a figurehead; a walking, talking mascot who serves as a portal to not only the brand, but the planet. Everything concerning, or negative, about The Circle’s constant desire to develop, and therefore consume more personal data, is played for positive experimentation. A refreshing change indeed.
As you’d most likely expect, considering the titular location, Ponsoldt’s centre is a dynamic and cinematically rich place to reside. It’s forensic-white, and blood-red, colour scheme is elegantly contrasting, and the usage of on-screen pop-ups, such as instant messages, and employee ratings echoes that of Black Mirror; never a bad thing. Danny Elfman’s nauseating score tingles the senses as the drama intensifies, really showing its gusto and clout as the third-act climax heightens. Regrettably, we exit on a fairly flat note, but the crescendo will have you riveted.
The collective ensemble cast – which really is an ensemble – is largely well-impleneted. Boyega, who plays Ty Lafitte; one of the most important figures in the business’ progression, is sadly underused, but the likes of Gillan, Oswald, Boyhood‘s Ellar Coltrane, and Bill Paxton, are given enough meat to chew on. Watson makes for an inspired lead, and carries the project with direct intent, whilst Hanks’ slyly engaging ringleader – so close to being the orchestrator of a cult – is most enjoyable. Together the twosome have sharply devised interplay.
The Circle bursts with ideas, and poses plentiful questions. It may not answer them all with perfect clarity, but Ponsoldt’s digital dystopia offers an audacity which stimulates and sustains. The utterly scathing reviews are massively unwarranted.
The Circle is now available to stream on Netflix in the United Kingdom.