Film Review of The Circle
I’m going to confess that I’ve never seen Emma Watson in a movie before. I haven’t seen the new live-action “Beauty and The Beast.” Hadn’t seen Aronofsky’s “Noah” or the indie films “The Bling Ring” or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I have also never seen any of the “Harry Potter” films. I was already in my thirties when those books came out and had no children to motivate me to get interested in the topic of adolescent magicians. I just never got around to reading the books or seeing the films and probably never will.
Wait – I just realized upon inspecting Watson’s IMDb page I have seen her in one movie: 2012’s “My Week with Marilyn” and I literally can’t conjure up a single memory of her from that film.
So, I don’t know her as an actress, but I am certainly aware of who she is. I know that she’s known to be a very thoughtful and intelligent young woman who is inspiring others with her literary campaign “Our Shared Shelf.” I appreciate that Watson is an admitted feminist with a bright, creative future who wants to inspire other young women.
But I’m going to admit that I don’t think she’s a movie star.
That probably sounds cruel and petty as if I were bashing her, woman-to-woman. My criticism of her, however, isn’t about her looks or her intelligence. I’ll explain in a bit.
In “The Circle” Watson stars as Mae Holland, a mid-twenties gal living with her parents in the San Francisco Bay area. She works a meaningless temp job for the Water Department, likes to kayak alone and perhaps relies a little too much on her handy neighbor Mercer. Mercer and Mae have grown up together, and when her car breaks down, she gives trusty old Mercer a call despite the fact that she kinda knows that he cares for her and she’s using him. Except this exchange which happens in the first scene of the movie, we know nothing more about Mae or her interests or beliefs.
Mae’s parents, Bonnie and Vinnie (Glenne Headley and the late Bill Paxton in his final big-screen release) are clearly just getting by. You know this because their house is dirty. I don’t mean messy but dirty – you see dirt and grime and fingerprints on their walls and light switches which are something you never see in a typical Hollywood movie unless it’s intentional. Vinnie has Multiple Sclerosis, and Bonnie spends her life in a kind of servitude to her husband who clearly isn’t being proactive with his health since he likes to drink canned beer.
Suddenly Mae receives a phone call from a friend who works for a social media company called The Circle, and she’s just gotten her friend an interview. Mae is elated and eager because she’s clearly been hearing good things about The Circle for a long time. Even her parents are over the moon because they’re telling all their friends about her salary and amazing dental plan.
Mae takes a simple customer service position. She gets a tour of the campus from her friend Annie, played by Scottish actress Karen Gillan (a “Dr. Who” veteran) who quite literally bounces as she excitedly shows Annie the bocce court and coffee bar and play yards of The Circle’s campus. What Annie’s job is isn’t exactly known, but clearly, she has some real responsibility at this firm and shares access to some top-secret stuff with Mae.
Mae heads home one weekend to spend some quality time with family and friends, and her old buddy Mercer comes by. Mercer (Ellar Coltrane of “Boyhood”) has that scruffy-but-sensitive look on his face like you just know that he has read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” while working on an actual motorcycle. Mae learns that Mercer is making antler chandeliers. They chat and spar, Mercer and Mae, but then she heads back to work on Monday morning. There, curiously, a duo never named come up to her to inquire about her weekend. They’re not just making idle chit-chat, mind you. They want to know why she went home for the weekend. (It isn’t explained to the audience at the inception of Mae’s career that she will live on campus). Why didn’t she tell anyone where she was going? Why didn’t she post all about the experience on social media and why, in fact, is she not in The Circle? The Circle is a social media site, clearly modeled on Facebook. It’s important, they tell Mae, that she become a part of this family. That she does not just work here but share her life with the rest of the team. Why Mae is the only human being on the planet who clearly isn’t already in The Circle is not explained, but of course, the two magpies hovering at her desk quickly sign her up for an account.
Now, Mae wanders the hallways of The Circle’s campus while text bubbles appear on the screen showing her likes and comments and communications. Once, feeling particularly effusive after a video chat with her mom, she uploads a photo of one of Mercer’s antler chandeliers so everyone online can enjoy it.
Except, they don’t. In fact, in this ooh-so-sensitive world that Mae inhabits, her social circle is in fact horrified. Does Mercer, like, kill the deer to get those antlers!? Understandably, Mercer cuts himself off from Mae.
Meanwhile, she also submits to a rigorous and invasive health screening. She discloses information about her family including her father’s health status and is elated to discover that The Circle would like to add her parents to her health plan. She doesn’t ask any questions about this. Does she think this is a good thing? Bad thing? She continues on her merry way, ingratiating herself into the group at The Circle. She meets a thoughtful young man, (John Boyega from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) who seems to know a lot about what happens behind the scenes at The Circle. And of course, Mae is just one of many hyper-enthused employees who is inspired by the work being done by Bailey, the CEO of the company. Tom Hanks plays Bailey as a nod to Steve Jobs, walking casually out on the stage with his ever-present cup of regular-guy coffee to introduce new ideas and technologies to the team. Like the idea of teeny, tiny cameras installed on the beaches to ensure the safety of swimmers. Or those same tiny cameras scattered throughout a city block somewhere in the Middle East, trained to watch for a high-level terrorist. Backing up Bailey is his trusty COO, Stenton (a sadly under-used Patton Oswalt who does little in the film beyond lurking).
Does Mae think installing cameras everywhere is a good idea? Maybe, although we don’t know her thoughts. But she’s smiling and happy and gives no outward appearance of her inner thoughts.
And that’s my complaint, or issue with Emma Watson as a leading actress. She is a fine thespian, a remarkable young woman, a talent and a mover and shaker in the world of conscientious youth but her inner workings never come across on the screen.
The greatest actors are not celebrated for their demeanor or their looks or their ability to emote. They are noted for their ability to bring us into their world, and that starts with their thoughts. The greatest actors of any generation are known for capturing the experience and making it universal. If they can’t, they’re usually relegated to supporting or character roles. Which is fine.
When Mae takes the kayak out at night, unprepared and for an unexplained reason, she sets off a chain of events that will put her front and center into the issues of personal and professional privacy. She is recorded for all waking hours, with the exception of some bathroom time, so that the world will see everything she does – an idea that The Circle and Bailey/Stenton are trying to get political support for. But despite the hyper-visibility, I know nothing of what is inside Mae’s brain.
The whole time I was watching this movie I kept wondering “What is she thinking?”
Does she truly believe that transparency is the answer?
Does she have any feelings for Mercer?
Why is she going kayaking at night?
What does she think is going on with Annie’s behavior? Etcetera.
I hadn’t read David Eggers’ novel “The Circle” upon which this film was based but while the film does pose some truly thought-provoking ideas about social media and the privacy line between work and personal lives and the issues of global manhunts and consumer transparency, “The Circle” not only didn’t tell us what we might think of these notions – it also didn’t really explain how the so-called protagonist felt.
All in all, a dud of a film. A rare miss for an actor like Tom Hanks. And personally, I think that Emma Watson should stick to rom-coms and the light, fanciful film work that she began her career with. Again, I know that sounds mean but acting is as much about the inner work as how it appears on screen, and both this film and its leading lady never take us beyond the surface.