08 November 2009
Effortlessly imagining the heady world of 1930s New York theatre, Richard Linklaker’s (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) follow up to the disappointing Fast Food Nation, is an engaging and smartly scripted coming of age trip through the drama of life on the stage.
Teen song and dance man Zac Efron (High School Musical, 17 Again) is undoubtedly the main draw as a young actor who gets his dream break with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company. In just one week, Efron’s green but determined Richard Samuels goes from star-struck wannabe to Broadway debuting Shakespearian actor. Along the way he finds romance with an older, sophisticated theatre assistant (Claire Danes) and painfully witnesses at first hand the mysteries of Welles’ genius and artistic temperament.
First of all Efron is fine – likeable and lively as the wide-eyed innocent, he brings a vitality to the role that his young fans will surely appreciate. Not exactly a stretch of a character for him, but one that he plays to good effect. And of course, his hair and teeth look great.
The film is, however, all about the magic of Orson Welles and the storming performance of newcomer Christian McKay, who manages to capture Welles’ every nuance and tick with alarming accuracy. From the first bellowed boom of the famous Wellsian tones McKay announces his arrival on screen as a major talent. His Orson is fantastic; funny, erudite, charismatic, manic and hugely intelligent. In short, the movie is worth going to see on the strength of this performance/impression alone.
Strong support from a cast including Brits Eddie Marsden (so good in Mike Leigh’s recent Happy Go Lucky) and Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line) lends an extra bit of class to an already high quality production but in truth this is McKay’s – and Orson’s – show. The story is lightweight stuff and the style and tone will not win any awards for originality. What sets it apart is McKay’s extraordinary portrayal. Once again Orson is the star of the show, which is, of course, the only way he would have had it.