Emma Watson was only eleven years old when the first Harry Potter film arrived in theaters. The cinematic series catapulted her to worldwide fame and for seven more features, the world watched as she grew up as her character on film. In a similar vein, Ellar Coltrane was filmed over the course of twelve years as he grew up for the film Boyhood (2014). It seems appropriate enough then that both actors were cast in the new thriller The Circle — a film that explores the issue of constant surveillance.
Both actors know what it’s like to be under the spotlight.
The difference is that Watson and Coltrane chose to be filmed acting during their respective careers. The Circle explores the concept that thanks to new technology, we often don’t have that choice anymore.
Watson plays Mae, a young professional who is struggling with her boring day job. With the support of her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), she is offered a position at a tech company known as the Circle. The Circle is a massive company with users across the globe and its leader is the charismatic Bailey (Tom Hanks), a man who argues that “Knowing is good but knowing everything is better.”
The set-up is simple with Bailey voicing the ideology of people who believe that privacy should no longer exist. Thanks to the Hank’s likability and his smooth personality, the character comes across as realistic despite the fact that he seemingly wants knowledge about every facet of people’s lives. He coats his power-craven philosophy with idealistic messages.
“Tyrants and terrorists can no longer hide,” he says, about a world under complete surveillance..
Mae starts her new position intrigued but also ambivalent about her company. Then, she becomes one of the company’s rising stars and later, she starts to question it again. Unfortunately, her character isn’t developed enough for her journey to seem realistic especially in the feature’s first half.
It’s never fully understood why she transitions so quickly from being a circle skeptic to becoming the poster child for their beliefs. There’s one life-altering sequence that starts to explain it but the screenwriters gloss over her the true depth of her changing persona.
Added to that, the screenplay isn’t as sophisticated or thoughtful as it could’ve been. Based on a novel by Dave Eggers and adapted to the screen by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (who previously did tremendous work with The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour), there are plenty of wonderful ideas in the story. Few of them are explored deeply. A scene featuring two employees questioning Mae’s relationships in the circle (and her time away from it) offers a look inside the nature of the organization but it’s played for laughs more than anything. One wishes that this claustrophobic social environment was explored more.
In one of his latest onscreen roles, Bill Paxton offers a nice supporting performance as Mae’s father while Patton Oswalt does a strong job as a behind-the-scenes manipulator working for Bailey.
Despite its timely subject matter, The Circle comes across as a typical thriller about an employee who begins to wonder about her employer. Other films — like The Firm (1993) — explored a similar premise in a deeper and more intriguing way. The uniqueness of this feature’s technological tools isn’t enough for it to stand out in this crowded genre.
Review by: John Hanlon