Orson Welles is both a legendary figure and an imposing force within the realm of cinema. His creations have etched themselves into artistic history, the timeless imaginings of a man whose name is associated with some of the greatest filmic achievements of the early 20th century. While his achievements in the sphere of films are well-known, however, other aspects of his life are often overshadowed by the fame he garnered in the prime of his life. Some publications do cover this, chiefly the biography of Welles penned by Simon Callow – mentioned in this feature – but as far as films go, one is found wanting when looking for a biopic that examines the man's life in detail – until now, at least.
Jack Cousins, serving and both the director and the erudite narrator whose distant, soothing tones drive the picture along, strives to explore the character of Orson not merely through repeated observations of certain aspects of his films alone, but also through connecting the director's lesser-explored artistic side to his personal experiences, his developing worldview, and how it influenced him as a creator of art. Welles' collection of illustrations made across the course of his career and his life is what this biopic uses as its framing device, and are used extensively by Cousins to essentially mirror Welles' own personal development - divided into three primary segments of 'Pawn', 'Knight' and 'King', with a denouement named 'Jester' containing an unexpected and amusing surprise of sorts, the film offers a keen insight into Welles' growth as a child, his relationships with family and loved ones, how his surroundings and experiences altered his beliefs with regard to both politics and the world at large, his connections with those of different races, faiths and cultures, and the peculiar points of view he held - and all the while Cousins repeatedly addresses Orson personally with varying degrees of emotion depending on the moment, adding a distinctly human if perhaps excessively indulgent and fawning touch to the proceedings, alongside the intermittent appearances of Orson's surviving daughter, Beatrice.
The three 'acts'. as they were, illuminate aspects of Welles often overlooked by other examinations of the man, both contemporary and historical. Welles' transformation as an artist is essentially depicted as a quasi-coming of age story through from the particulars of the blossoming romances he held with Rita Hayworth and Dolores Del Rio and the ups and downs in these relationships to his formative years after his journey to Ireland and his idiosyncratic fixation on the 'outmoded' ideals of chivalry, among other things, all supplemented and enhanced by frequent flashes to Welles' artwork at the time which serves as an acute reflection of his emotional state - one compelling sequence examines Orson's seemingly innocuous drawings of Santa Claus, the bright and merry colour palette of his earlier compositions becoming progressively more muddied and dreary with time. Bold outlines, sharp silhouettes and curious, half-complete faces are placed under the looking glass, and through Cousin's keen analytical skills in tying individual images to Welles' mood, we have a view of a distinctly multifaceted individual who invites comparisons to a variety of characters, from Prince Hal, to Lear, to Don Quixote. Indeed, the latter comparison is a core component of the feature's second act, and the film spares no expense in making parallels, from focusing on Welles' own images of the novel's central characters to outright quoting the famous passage wherein the eponymous knight charges at windmills mistaking them for giants, parallels further enhanced by a brief yet tantalising look into Welles' own ill-fated passion project based on that very same work.
Indeed, many of Welles' lesser-known but still outstanding productions are given a fair amount of focus. Next to the usual suspects such as Citizen Kane and Lady From Shanghai, Welles' radio broadcasts are also given attention, as are exotic set-ups like his all-black rendition of Macbeth. Within this library of work, however, there is something that is striking in how much it stands out, and it is also something Cousins references in proving Welles' relevance in the modern era. In addition to covering his own peculiar eccentricities, a segment of the biopic launches into extensive detail regarding an anti-fascist performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the time of rising tensions and the ascension of the Nazi Party in Western Europe, the play's cast looking every bit like steadfast soldiers of the coming Reich as they assembled on stage in crisp military uniforms - and now, with the rise of certain people to positions of immense power, this curious rendition of Shakespeare's work and Orson's rallying cries across the radio in his heyday, inspiring people to stand against the rising tide of oppression, fascism and plutocracy, seems now to echo down through the years. One can only wonder what commentary Welles might have offered were he still with us.
It does become too quiet at certain points, even if such is intentional, and it ends up verging on harmfully self-indulgent in places - but for those with a firm interest in a man so storied and successful as Orson Welles, it certainly provides ample coverage of some of the more less-discussed topics and productions related to him. Only time will tell if this is remembered, but it is clearly a labour of love by someone who adores the man's legacy, and in displaying his knowledge and passion for Welles, Cousins has, at least, constructed a biopic that can certainly be called solid.