This is a coming-of-age movie with a twist. The story of a young man looking for success and love is set within a real historical context – Orson Welles’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in November 1937.
Mention Orson Welles and most people think of Citizen Kane, the first film he directed, or of his role as Harry Lime in the thriller The Third Man.
The image is often of a genius, destroyed by the studio system but not helped by his own massive ego.
This is a distortion. It also leaves out something crucial. In the 1930s Welles was deeply affected by the Great Depression and the looming menace of European fascism.
There was a great flowering of popular left wing culture. A space opened up for socially aware culture. President Roosevelt’s New Deal administration channelled funds into arts, drama, media and literacy projects.
This was the atmosphere in which Welles worked. He established his reputation in the theatre as a radical innovator. The radicalism was also political.
This kind of culture came to an abrupt end in the post-war period – destroyed by hysterical anti-communism. Its history was buried – including Welles’s own part in it.
In 1937 Welles turned 22. He started work on a musical called The Cradle Will Rock, set in Steeltown USA. It was about prostitution and degradation but also about resistance and strikes.
News spread of what Welles was up to. Those in charge of official funding became nervous. Rehearsals coincided with bitter strikes in major car plants and riots in Chicago steel mills.
The musical was banned. Guards padlocked the New York Federal Theatre and the scenery was confiscated. Welles came into conflict with union leaders.
At the last minute he found another theatre. He was forced to mount the musical without scenery, orchestra or some of the cast – just a piano.
Nevertheless, the musical was a triumphant success. Its message about a storm wind rocking the cradle of American society caused a sensation.
Which brings us back to Me And Orson Welles. The production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is at the heart of the film, followed directly from The Cradle Will Rock – and in its own way was just as radical.
But you would not really know this from Richard Linklater’s film.
It tends to concentrate on the drama of personality clashes, sexual intrigue, young love and professional rivalry.
It does this with great style and polish – and the film’s sly allusions to aspects of Welles’s later career are all great fun, particularly the bit where the actor playing Joseph Cotten reprises a moment from The Third Man (one for the film buffs).
It tends to give you Welles the theatrical genius, part bully, part
womaniser – rather than Welles the political radical. Nevertheless, the politics do come through – particularly at the end, when we finally get to see key moments from the opening night of Julius Caesar.
And here we have a brilliant recreation of what Welles did back in 1937. He broke with tradition and the kind of “refined” acting that depicted Caesar as noble and the assassins as evil.
Welles’s version is updated to the present. The cast are dressed in fascist uniform.
Harsh spotlights are used to accentuate the violence and manipulation of Caesar’s dictatorial regime. Brutus, the assassin, is the hero – not Antony, who “restores” order. This saves the film from being enjoyable but slight.
There are good performances from Zac Efron, who plays the part of Richard Samuels, the aspiring student actor, and from Claire Danes.
She is his romantic interest – but is more interested in advancing her career through sleeping with the right men than being Richard’s true love.
But the prize must go to Christian McKay as Welles. It’s not that he resembles the real Orson Welles. Rather, he brilliantly captures the mannerisms, gestures and voice of the man. Even here, though, there is a problem. For what he captures is the image we have come to associate with the later Welles.
The drama revolves round the brilliance but destructiveness of Welles’s ego – not the more complex drama of artistic ambition and politics. The conclusion is irresistible.
Young Richard should give up the lure of being like Welles and settle down with the more modest and genuine young woman he met in a museum.
There she had been contemplating a Grecian urn and reciting a poem by Keats. The message seems clear – better a contemplative art than an activist one. Better the museum than life in political theatre.