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Christian McKay and Zac Efron: It may look like a cable production and makes no attempt to evoke New York in the thirties, but the film has a great ace up its sleeve – the character of Orson Welles.

3 out of 4 stars


Me and Orson Welles

  • Directed by Richard Linklater
  • Written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo
  • Starring Christian McKay, Zac Efron and Claire Danes
  • Classification: PG

Before he created the grand radio stunt War of the Worlds, before he made Citizen Kane, the 1941 film still regarded by many as the pinnacle of motion-picture achievement, a 22-year-old Orson Welles was a theatre genius. He made his triumphant Broadway debut in 1937 with a bare bones, heavily edited, modern dress, "black shirt" production of Julius Caesar . The show, echoing the rise of totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany, was a hit and Welles's Mercury Theatre was launched.

Me and Orson Welles blends fictional and historic characters in chronicling that theatre milestone from the perspective of a New York high-school senior, Richard (Zac Efron), who gets the role of Lucius, the lute-playing servant to Brutus, in the frantic week before the play's opening. The job promises neither money nor glory, simply a chance to be at the birth of a cultural event.

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"You're not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson's spit," Welles's assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), warns him.

Me and Orson Welles (adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from a youth novel by high-school English teacher Robert Kaplow) shouldn't be as entertaining as it is. Efron is too much a confident Disney heartthrob to suggest the nervous awe his character is supposed to feel. Also, it looks like a cable television production. Richard Linklater ( Before Sunrise , Dazed and Confused ) makes no attempt at evoking New York in the thirties (it was shot in London and the Isle of Man), and there's no attempt to simulate Welles's baroque film style.

Fortunately, Me and Orson Welles has a great thundering ace up its sleeve - the character of Orson Welles. He's reincarnated here by British stage actor Christian McKay, who played Welles in the off-Broadway one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles . McKay has Welles's baritone down to a juicy rumble. His twinkle, his pomposity, his patronizing manner are captured to perfection. (If the 36-year-old McKay looks old for 22, so did Welles.) There are moments when you see McKay, jumping in and out of the role of Brutus (treated highly sympathetically) and ordering his cast about, when you feel as if you had stumbled onto some remarkable found documentary of Welles in action.

The other achievement is a smartly crafted story, a memorable coming-of-age tale as young Richard gets a crash course both in art and treachery. Welles is portrayed as a horror to work for, pompous, dishonest, irascible and petty. He juggles a pregnant wife and several mistresses, while running roughshod over his cast's feelings in the service of his changing vision.

Like Richard, Danes's Sonja is a fictional character, a stylish Vassar grad with career ambitions who serves as Richard's, and our, entrée into this backstage family. We meet the Welles ensemble: the much put-upon manager, John Houseman (who had a secondary career as an actor in the seventies' and eighties in the movie and television series The Paper Chase ); the skirt-chasing Joseph Cotten (James Tupper); and the neurotic, gifted George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who plays Marc Antony.

The very name Orson Welles stands for genius wasted and betrayed, and the movie offers some foreshadowing of his triumphs and failures to come. Welles takes Richard along to a radio taping for a little lesson in acting and, on the way, shows him his marked-up copy of The Magnificent Ambersons (his other 1941 masterpiece), which he describes, in a vulnerable moment, as being "about how everything gets taken away from you."

But the film is about Welles cresting toward his greatest triumphs. He breezes through the radio drama on fierce energy and panache, without bothering to learn the lines. Best of all, we see enough scenes of Welles's staging of Julius Caesar to suggest how the stark violence and minimalist presentation had such an immediate impact.

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Me and Orson Welles is book-ended with another love story of Richard's fledgling romance with a young fiction writer (Zoe Kazan), which is endearing, if dispensable. Powerful art, as Welles demonstrated, is anything but endearing.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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