If you’ve read any article from The New Statesman over the last 5 years, you’ll know that social media is the worst thing that has ever happened ever. Our obsession with sharing updates about funny stuff our children did, tweets about political issues and photos of our lunches is what will apparently bring down society as we know it and send us into the new ice age. It seems a bit like a paranoid fantasy… but what if it wasn’t?
The Circle is one way of looking at that possibility, adapted by Dave Eggers (Where The Wild Things Are) and James Ponsodlt (Smashed) – who also directs – from the novel by Eggers. We follow Mae Holland (Emma Watson, Beauty And The Beast) as she leaves her job in the customer care department of a water company and joins The Circle; a huge, multifaceted social media company run by CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, Sully) and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt, Mystery Science Theatre 3000) which is working to bring all aspects of modern life under one digital roof, so that everyone online can share everything they do with anyone and everyone they want to. They obviously frame this as a good thing; by allowing the whole world into your life, there are no more secrets; openness and transparency will create freedom and safety for all of humanity. The deeper question remains; what is their real motivation?
The Circle is a modern reframing of a question and a problem that has resurfaced time and time again throughout human history; what happens when bad people take a good idea and use it for their own motivations? At its heart, the concept of The Circle is good; a social media network that connects the entire world and breaks down the barriers to humanity. When Mae is hired for her role in the Customer Care department, the emphasis is placed on satisfaction. The aim of every interaction with an unhappy user is for them to give a 100% satisfaction rating with how their complaint was handled, and the issue should not be dropped until that is achieved. It seems like a big ask, but to those who work in customer service it isn’t that unfamiliar a concept and it helps us relate to Mae early in the story, as her approval ratings sit in the high 80s in her first week on the job. She is repeatedly told that is nothing to be ashamed of, including and especially by her friend Annie (Karen Gillan, Guardians Of The Galaxy); but the pressure from her supervisor to haul those numbers up remains. Every interaction with her colleagues is framed this way to begin with, with the singular exception of Annie – every conversation starts off positive but leads to a number of critiques on her work, her personality; even with her minimal appearances at supposedly “non-compulsory” social events within The Circle’s compound. Mae is forced to find balance between the ever-increasing pressures of her new role and her home life away from The Circle; a life made more difficult by her father’s MS and her mother’s struggle to care for him alone.
The Circle does a good job of framing a wider conversation about privacy and control in the digital age through the very specific frame of Mae Holland’s life and role within the organization, and her role within the wider world; both digital and real. Watson shines as Mae, seemingly juggling the social and moral implications of how her increasingly troubling situation impacts upon her life, but also on the lives of those close to her; and the lives of everyone associated with The Circle. Watson brings a youthful ignorance to Holland; as she says herself, she’s “drunk the Kool-Aid” of The Circle and allows her excitement of being a part of the project to cloud her judgement in relation to some of the more suspect practices in the compound. As Holland’s star rises inside The Circle and throughout the wider world, Watson takes us in to the emotional journey that comes with the unexpected responsibility placed upon her, juxtaposed with the impact her actions are having on those she cares about most. However, it’s difficult to find a way to really resonate with her; she flip-flops between her personal life being too important to give up, to her job being too important to give up, and her reactions to the increasingly oppressive and unbelievable stipulations
Hanks and Oswalt contribute well to the tale as well, with both characters serving very different approaches to the same goal. The Circle represents one of Hanks’ very few outings as a screen villain, but the role draws upon his trademark friendliness and warmth of personality in order to construct the truly unsettling aspects of Eamon Bailey’s character. Bailey is a perhaps too obvious parody of tech giants of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs; a CEO who is always dressed in comfortable sweaters and jeans; who holds huge launch events called Dream Friday to demonstrate new tech designed to revolutionise the way the species interacts. Each new insight to the work which The Circle is doing becomes more and more suspect, making the viewer less trustworthy of Bailey and his company; while his audiences (full of Circle employees) grow to love him more and more. It’s hugely interesting to see Hanks’ affable nature being used in this way, and to see his kind eyes and honest face spinning the actions of his company as only positive is uncomfortable; but he never takes the leap into being truly chilling and his come-uppance almost feels a little flat as a result.
Oswalt’s Stenton is the perfect accomplice to Bailey; a man who is always seen in a suit and only seen when The Circle is involved in a more serious issue. He is the straight-man of the team; dealing with threats from political opponents and announcing schemes which increase the company’s stock with the political landscape. Much like Hanks, Oswalt is not as well known for villainous turns; but as an established comedy and character actor this role presents little challenge; and his trademark sarcastic delivery helps to elevate the distrust when he is seen directly alongside Hanks. However, it is the scenes when he is nearby, lurking in the shadows as the other characters are doing their thing that he reaches peak levels of unease, and really outshines Hanks as the villain of the piece.
Karen Gillan’s Annie plays a key role in establishing a parallel for Watson’s Mae, and it’s a role she takes with both hands. Established as a top-level advisor and worker when Mae begins her job at The Circle, Annie’s character arc is almost a complete opposite of Mae’s, and Gillan demonstrates her fall from grace perfectly, but in a role that could have benefitted from more screen-time to fully flesh out the character, who feels a touch superficial despite Gillan’s sterling work. This criticism could also be levelled at Ty, played by John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens); a mysterious character who comes to quickly trust Mae and shows her the dark heart of various Circle plans, stripping off the spin to show what the true aims of Bailey and Stenton are. Despite seemingly playing a crucial role in the culmination of the film he is barely featured in the movie as a whole, usually seen mirroring Oswalt and skulking around at the back of scenes where somebody else is doing something important, which to me felt like both a waste of an interesting character, and a waste of one of the hottest young talents in Holywood at the moment.
Mae’s life outside the Circle is consistently demonstrated as being a key motivation for a lot of the decisions she makes during the course of the story, but also receives fairly limited screen time, held together by performances from Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood) as Mae’s childhood friend Mercer, Glenne Headley (Don Jon) as Mae’s mother Bonnie, and Bill Paxton (Nightcrawler) as her father Vinnie, a challenging characterisation of the struggles of living with MS, and his last cinematic role before his passing away earlier this year. Mercer is a generic and disinteresting stereotype of both a technophobe and an unrequited love, and his involvement in key events feels flat as a result. Mae’s parents take the weight as the outside influence on the story as a result, and while they display the challenges of living with MS and the love they have for Mae well; limited screen time again damages their influence on Mae’s decision making long-term.
Ponsodlts’ direction is interesting; The Circle has quite a slow and considered build-up, something which feels appropriate for the tone of the piece and the internal emotional and intellectual journey which Mae takes as the story progresses; but only at the end. There were moments when I found myself unable to comprehend Mae’s decisions at various points; how she couldn’t possibly have clicked to the underhanded nature of what was happening around her as her situation grows more and more dire. It was only at the ultimate conclusion that it all suddenly made sense, and it’s a good conclusion – it comes seemingly out of nowhere and doesn’t feel like the climax you would expect, but that’s mainly down to how the actual story plays out. There’s a lack of real tension to the piece and, despite the efforts of a very talented cast.
Overall, The Circle is an interesting story, both for technophobes and tech-addicts, but it doesn’t really say anything, shying away from making a real statement on the nature of social media and digital advancement in a time when the nature of personal privacy is a hot topic. It’s a good watch, but don’t anticipate any big-time award nominations.