TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - At the heart of “Me and Orson Welles” is an uncanny impersonation of the young Orson Welles by English actor Christian McKay.
He does resemble the “boy genius” a bit, but more crucially his voice is perfect. He has nailed every vocal nuance that contributed to Welles’ acting performances and larger-than-life personality. McKay has previously done a one-man show as Welles and, in a way, this movie is a continuation of that show.
Not that the always surprising Richard Linklater doesn’t surround McKay’s Orson with a memorable cast that plays real and imaginary characters who were a part of Orson’s Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar” in 1937. All spark to life quite nicely. Yet you get the feeling that if Orson were to vanish, their life lights would dim precipitously.
There is an audience for this film. Fans of two indie mavericks, Linklater and Welles, for starters. The film also is a must for lovers and students of the theater. Ditto that for admirers of terrific acting. But this all adds up to an art house audience. Any distributor that bites must hope that McKay gets recognition with year-end awards to help boost what will otherwise be modest box office.
The film, written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, derives from Robert Kaplow’s carefully researched historical novel about the legendary 1937 New York stage production. Shakespeare’s play was pared down to 90 minutes and performed on a bare stage, covered with platforms at various heights, with the actors wearing Fascist uniforms. It was a critical triumph.
Kaplow and now Linklater’s story imagines that a high school student, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who loves theater and music, wanders by the restored 41st Street theater and is hired by an impetuous Welles for a minor though key role.
Through Richard’s eyes we watch the show take shape in its last week, moving from near catastrophe to artistic victory while its director and star (Welles played Brutus) throws off brilliant though often contradictory ideas, sneaks off to trysts with willing actresses and assistants, continues the radio show that pays the bills and never apologizes for his raging ego.
Richard becomes romantically involved with Welles’ ambitious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), rubs shoulders with the likes of Mercury co-founder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), future movie star Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Mercury star George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and sees how art involves a certain amount of artifice. Or B.S., as Sonja puts it.
The film gets off to a halting start with too many talky scenes setting things up. The movie hits its stride as the Richard-Sonja romance heats up and Welles buckles down to business. Efron (“Hairspray,” “High School Musical”) holds his own against Welles/McKay, which is no easy task. He seems a bit mature for a high school student though. He’s more a college sophomore.
Danes plays a potentially off-putting role with charm and verve. Other standouts include Kelly Reilly as the show’s female star Muriel Brassler and Al Weaver as designer Sam Leve, whose original stage design for “Julius Caesar” was copied by the filmmakers to insure authenticity.
In the end though, Linklater’s film is about Orson Welles, not the Me. The film does analyze his artistic process and his perhaps already damaged psyche with a degree of hindsight, giving him a speech of self-assessment the real Orson would have been incapable of in 1937.
That the boy wonder became an old-age parody of himself as much through his own self-destructiveness as the misdeeds of others informs every moment of McKay’s great performance. The film ends on a note of supreme happiness and hope, though, both for Orson and for Richard. After all, the future still lies ahead.