Set over the course of one week in November 1937, Me and Orson Welles is a charming coming-of-age drama in which a stage-struck 17-year-old school kid – winningly played by High School Musical star Zac Efron – has a life-changing brush with showbiz and with the titanic ego of the young Orson Welles.
This Welles is 22 years old (the age Efron is now), plump, yes, but far slimmer than the corpulent figure he became and we remember. Yet, even then, he is a larger-than-life character. By sheer force of will, he has created his own Mercury Theatre company and is about to stage a ground-breaking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York.
Which is where Efron’s callow, cocky schoolboy, Richard Samuels, comes in. On a day trip into the city, he bluffs his way into the theatre and gets offered a minor role in the play, which gives him – and us – the opportunity to witness stage history in the making.
The film’s Welles is a mix of huckster and genius. Dashing around Manhattan in a chauffeur-driven ambulance (Why not? It lets him beat the traffic), he cajoles all the men into playing their parts in his great enterprise and seduces most of the women.
Among those swept along by the Welles whirlwind are Eddie Marsan as Welles’s put-upon producer, John Houseman; Claire Danes as his ambitious assistant, Sonja Jones; Ben Chaplin as neurotic English thespian George Coulouris; James Tupper as charming ladykiller Joseph Cotton; and Kelly Reilly as the show’s leading lady, Muriel Brassler – all of them real figures as described in the film’s source, Robert Kaplow’s impeccably researched novel. Efron’s character is based on a actual person as well, though his original, Arthur Anderson, was only 13.
Welles sweeps us along too, for all his boorishness and bullying. In large measure, that’s thanks to an astonishing performance by little-known English stage actor Christian McKay, who captures Welles’ boundless self-confidence and energy, his willpower and magnetism, as well as his fruity self-regard and bitter self-loathing. Credit also goes to the film’s self-effacing director, Richard Linklater, whose deft but unshowy direction gives his cast the chance to shine.
Welles’s play is a triumph. Afterwards, he says, “How the hell do I top this?” With the benefit of hindsight, we of course know how. Having revolutionised the theatre, Welles went on to do the same with radio and the cinema. Within just a couple of years of the Mercury Caesar, he’d pulled off his legendary, panic-inducing broadcast of War of the Worlds, before going to Hollywood and making Citizen Kane – still regularly voted the greatest movie ever made.
On general release from 4th December.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.