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EIFF 2018: The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

N.B. This film is not on wide release in the UK at present. It was shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018.

A search for the inspirations behind a great artist

Mark Cousins’ latest documentary takes the form of a narrated letter written to the long-deceased Orson Welles. Part of this involves Cousins travelling to various locations in the United States, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Italy and Morocco to find out what may have inspired him as well as examining some relics from his life. He also pays a visit to his daughter Beatrice Welles, who administers his estate and who acted as a consultant on this production.

While on his journey, he takes a look at Welles’s life via a series of six chapters. He examines the man’s artwork, his radio career, his films, his theatre, his politics and the various women and men whom he loved through the years.

Watch a trailer:

Unmistakably Mark Cousins

Once again, director and film critic Mark Cousins has created a documentary which feels more like an extended, eloquently-delivered and dreamlike poem than it does a dry lecture. This time, he tackles one of the most influential figures in 20th-century culture: Orson Welles. While this man’s big-screen directorial work (such as his seminal 1942 film Citizen Kane) was undoubtedly important, his talents lay in a wide variety of arenas. While it would have been easy to make a feature-length documentary on just one of these art forms, The Eyes of Orson Welles embraces the whole lot by utilising them as pieces of a larger puzzle which he fills out via his road trip. It’s an ambitious approach but it largely works well here.

Cousins also takes a look at the where Welles came from. He grew up during the Great Depression and his career hit his stride during the rise of fascism. During this period, he offered his own effective political counterpoint via staging William Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem with an all-black cast and Haitian voodoo standing in for Scottish witchcraft. By extension, Cousins astutely notes the uncannily similar circumstances which have arisen in recent years and asks if there will be another Welles on the way.

On the downside, there is at least one conspicuous absence from an otherwise impressively-researched documentary: his infamous 1938 radio play adaptation of The War of the Worlds which caused mass panic as people across the United States were convinced that a genuine alien invasion was occurring. It was one of the most memorable events in his lengthy career and it is a shame that it was left out of a largely complete jigsaw puzzle.

Despite that omission, however, Eyes of Orson Welles is both authoritative and softly-spoken in that unmistakable Mark Cousins style.

Runtime: 110 mins

Dir: Mark Cousins

Script: Mark Cousins

Starring: Mark Cousins, Beatrice Welles

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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