Before Charles Foster Kane, or even the Martian invasion, there was Julius Caesar: Orson Welles’s Fascist-styled production of the play in 1937 is the subject of Richard Linklater’s latest film. Adapted from Robert Kaplow’s historical novel, it’s a winning account of the Mercury Theatre’s debut with the boy wonder at the helm. British actor Christian McKay, who did a one-man show about Welles in London, struts as the not-quite-lean but unmistakably hungry mastermind, pushing his cast through last-minute rehearsals and leaving a trail of smacked-down egos and romantic entanglements in his wake.
This deceptively modest movie is smartly not a curated compilation of Wellesiana, but rather a warmly observed look at the theater and those souls who live for the arts. We tag along with a high-school aspiring actor (Zac Efron) who hustles for a small role and finds his place in a company that includes, among others, smooth operator Joe Cotten (ringer James Tupper), an impatient George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and in the front and back offices, a harried John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and an ambitious young assistant (Claire Danes) who takes a shine to the teen.
Linklater chooses his scenes well to bring out the camaraderie, passions, flattery, and superstition that energize a troupe hurtling toward opening night, and he’s subtly attentive to period detail, attitudes, and music. Though the dialogue occasionally is rather on-the-nose, his film is sweet and true in pleasing proportion.