The Circle


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Circle
"The mysteries left unresolved after the near two and a half hours are more puzzling than compelling."

Based as it is on the first of a trilogy of Swedish Young Adult novels about a group of young witches, there are easy comparisons to be drawn between this film and Harry Potter, say, or thanks to a fair share of life and death The Hunger Games, and with its high-school hex appeal there's a touch of The Craft and with its suggestion of grander occult conspiracies possibly even a touch of the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer. These are comparisons that the film itself does not allude to. Even with Facebook appearing prominently, this is a film set in one of those zombie movie universes where the genre represented is not one that appears in film or art or at least the ken of iPhone owners.

There's a magical book, a 'Book of Patterns', made up of triangular shapes with lines that represent the six elements that nobody can read. For a time they keep at it, watching familiar outlines in slightly different arrangements for page after page. It's not necessarily indicative to the film itself, but it's close. Adaptations are tricky - Les Misérables really only used the canvas film afforded to full effect in the opening, that communal effort to bring a hull to dry-dock, and everybody was so terrified of not delivering a potential cash cow with the Harry Potter franchise that it came out homogenised, bland. Though it has some tremendous special effects and some good performances, The Circle isn't as magical as the events it depicts.

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It's hard to tell where weaknesses in adaptations spring from if one isn't familiar with the source material. The Hunger Games, despite being planned as a trilogy, has pacing issues even in the books, and the films have made life harder with a part one and two of part three. Jackson's Hobbit takes more time to watch than the book does to read, even without the songs.

Circle's songs, or at least its score, are provided by ABBA's Benny Andersson, and there's a talented (and large) ensemble cast, but Levan Akin's film (he directs, and co-writes with Sara Bergmark Elfgren who wrote the novel) has issues. Not just the usual high-school fodder of social exclusion and bullying, but with pacing and world-building. The last can probably be excused as a function of the source material, but the way the film builds and releases and at times squanders suspense is more difficult to explain away, and if one didn't know that the hope is for sequels then the flatness of the ending would be one thing, but the mysteries left unresolved after the near two and a half hours are more puzzling than compelling.

The young cast are good, but with a core of six before you add in antagonists and mentors and love interests and parents there almost isn't the time (even in a film this long) to get to know any of them.

The titular Circle are witches, a coven come suddenly upon their powers at adolescence - a sort of hex-men, if you will. No iconic origin stories though, no moment of challenge that manifests as power, instead it seems that "everyone has an element" and your element determines your magic. Scope for snide discussion of elemental affiliation and fashion palette aside, for all that this fact is important both to plot and, it would seem, sequels, it's best reinforced in the closing credit sequence. If the signs were subtly woven into the action, an advantage afforded by a visual medium, then they weren't detectable to your reviewer, but therein may lie part of the problem.

Despite an almost uncanny knack for being scheduled to see films in which young women come of age, and despite three younger sisters who were simultaneously teenage, your reviewer is not the target audience. Admittedly, he's savvy enough to suspect that the magical girl squad should be on Snapchat rather than the social network his aunties use, but that alone isn't much use when carrying expectations the film doesn't bother to subvert because the film doesn't seem to expect them in the audience. There are some that are more subtly done, there's an equivalent to the old faery bargain as Anna-Karin masters her powers, Minoo's proper study habits are important to saving the day, and the sequence near the start of people watching other people does make the town of Engelsfors seem a hot-bed of something, but at other moments the film itself is a bit too try-hard.

A Confederacy Of Dunces makes an appearance, and the school environment appears much more American than one might expect, with its lockers and the like, and it's anyone's guess how large the teenage goth population actually is outside of media constructed by people who've seen The Breakfast Club, but it's in other smaller details that the Circle reveals both strengths and weaknesses - hesitation over a friend request turns cursor into soliloquy, a table covered in cakes is sweetly symbolic, but the sub-titling tells us what 'Mamma' on a phone-screen means in a way that potentially misses the symbolism of the (self-)diminutive.

Akin is no stranger to English-language remakes (his SF TV series Real Humans became AMC's Humans this year) and one suspects the notion of the same fate befalling The Circle isn't cheering. Were it a TV show it would have plenty of competition but 'small town with weird happenings' is basically a genre of its own, like 'problem-solving arsehole guy' or 'crime show with scant regard for laws or science', and that space is, even in a multi-channel environment, less crowded than "horror for teenagers" or "young adult novel on the screen". It's possible that fans of the novel(s) will enjoy it, indeed, one hopes so, but The Circle is a film that doesn't quite work. For all the twists it provides it lacks a feeling of completeness. Even a link in a chain should be whole in and of itself, and though it's close, it doesn't hold together.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2015
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The Circle packshot
Six teenagers discover they have acquired supernatural powers as part of an ancient prophecy to fight evil.

Director: Levan Akin

Writer: Levan Akin, Sara Bergmark Elfgren, Sara Bergmark Elfgren, Mats Strandberg

Starring: Josefin Asplund, Helena Engström, Miranda Frydman, Irma von Platen, Hanna Asp, Leona Axelsen, Ruth Vega Fernandez, Sebastian Hiort af Ornäs, Vincent Grahl, Johanna Granström, Sverrir Gudnason, Dick Idman, Gustav Lindh, Ann-Sofie Nurmi, Charlie Petersson

Year: 2015

Runtime: 144 minutes

Country: Sweden


EIFF 2015

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