A young man (Efron) stumbles his way into the Mercury Theatre, set up by Orson Welles in 1937. There he learns about acting, life and love.
When Simon Callow set out to write a biography of Orson Welles, he found his subject too big for one volume. Similarly, it’s unlikely there’ll ever be a full biopic because, like Citizen Kane, Harry Lime and Mr. Arkadin, Welles showed many faces to many people over the years. However, a growing library of Welles-themed films exists, and soon it’ll be possible to programme a month-long season covering his life.
Richard Linklater’s film of Robert Kaplow’s novel, which somehow makes the Isle Of Man convincing as the Isle Of Manhattan, sits comfortably between Cradle Will Rock (set just before it), the TV movie The Night That Panicked America (about the 1938 War Of The Worlds broadcast), and RKO 281 (about Citizen Kane). Linklater scores over other Welles films in one crucial area: Christian McKay is the best screen Welles stand-in to date, easily raising the bar set by Angus Macfadyen, Liev Schreiber, Vincent d’Onofrio and Danny Huston. McKay uncannily resembles the young Welles and catches the familiar mannerisms, but more importantly he inhabits the role of a man who was always ‘on’: radiating the charisma that made people stick with him no matter how big a bastard he could be, stopping every so often to improvise lyrical speeches, weaselling out of crises by leaving human wreckage in his wake, clowning like a baby desperate to win over the grown-ups, and pulling great art out of himself like a conjurer producing a rabbit from a hat.
Around Orson Welles, the film weaves a conventional but nicely turned tale about a youth’s first steps in theatre, with Zac Efron creditably turning down his natural star quality to seem like a hesitant beginner and striking sparks off leading ladies Claire Danes and Zoe Kazan. Like Cradle Will Rock, it’s also a careful account of a legendary stage production, a ‘fascist Caesar’ with Mussolini uniforms and Nuremberg lighting. Welles’ Mercury Theatre was packed with big characters, and this is one of Linklater’s large cast films — with heroic work from Ben Chaplin, Leo Bill and Kelly Reilly as real actors (it’s touching that Bill does such a dead-on impersonation of the scarcely well-remembered Norman Lloyd), and more terrific support from Eddie Marsan as long-suffering producer John Houseman.
A really satisfying backstage drama, this is an exhilarating tour around a man whose talent was almost as big as his ego.