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Me and Orson Welles Review

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

One of the founding fathers of modern American cinema, Orson Welles has always held a certain fascination to the filmmakers that followed in his path. This latest period look at the intriguing auteur’s life is helmed by career maverick Richard Linklater, and while it doesn’t pulse with the director’s signature energy it does bear all the hallmark polish of veteran whose earned every right to take a swing at Welles.

In truth, the film isn’t really about Welles but a plucky young teen in 1937 New York who just happens to wander in front of the oncoming director’s swaggering brilliance. An enthusiastic consumer of the arts, bored with a stuffy school environment, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) manages to fluke his way into Welle’s upcoming production of Julius Caesar by being in the right place at the right time with the right measure of wide-eyed arrogance.   

Samules, like everybody, is soon drawn irresistibly to the temperamental, conceited, brilliant director’s sphere of influence, a willing pawn in a game so important that Welles wouldn’t dear even try to explain the rules to anyone else. The young lad has a puppy dog-like determination to succeed despite the constant distractions of confusing women, an impossible father figure, and a slightly exaggerated musical aptitude.

As a behind-the-scenes look at theatre production, the film is a fine homage to the magic of the stage. The camaraderie of the second-string actors weathering the torrential abuse of their tyrannical leader, the bi-polar arrogance and insecurity of the leads, the irreproachable passion and disgusting self-importance of the director; it’s all close to pitch-perfect.

Whenever straying from the theatre, however, the film tends to lose its momentum. It isn’t that the characters’ relationships are uninteresting; the constant womanising, unlikely pairings, and constant infidelity show up the scandalously liberal bent of the arts crowd in the 1930s in amusing ways. But poor little Samules gets such a rough deal that one can almost forgive the contrived solution to his love life woes just to see the doe-eyed urchin cheer up.

Although oddly conventional (especially for Linklater), Samuels romantic arc isn’t so much the problem as the actor tasked with the part. Efron, who I’m vaguely aware of having achieved some sort of tween heartthrob status, never settles into his charismatic character’s shoes completely. That’s fine when surrounded by the excellent supporting cast during rehearsal scenes, but in the more intimate moments Efron just doesn’t have the presence to carry the act.

It doesn’t help that the boy’s been thrown in alongside some incredibly fine talent. Breezily stealing the show, as he must, is Christian McKay as Welles. With the good fortune to have played the man on stage previously, McKay does one of the uncanniest impressions of the director yet committed to film. He’s warm, boisterous, fanatical, dangerous, inspired and a complete bastard, sometimes all in the one scene. It’s an extraordinary performance that has you missing the character whenever he’s not on screen.

The rest of the cast hold their own in limited, affectionate roles. Claire Danes makes a suitably gorgeous and vexing love interest; Ben Chaplin plays the prick production lead with an amusingly smug hostility; Leo Bill gives the comic relief a slightly uncomfortable, creepy aspect that, for some reason, works in his favour.

The production is impeccable, the hot jazz soundtrack and immaculately sharp wardrobe can’t help but make one a little jealous to have missed out on such a snazzy period in time.

The film itself is no Julius Ceasar but it’s an elegantly produced period piece with a cutting wit and infectious joy for its subject. Theatre fans and Welles aficionados will be the easiest sells, but the nimble little tale is sweet, pretty and fun enough to find broad appeal amongst the general festival crowd.

Me and Orson Welles is in cinemas July 1.


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