The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

  • 27 Nov - 03 Dec, 2021
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Here is a sentimental biopic that buries you in a fusillade of quirks and tics and flicks, an overegged pudding of a film with producer-star Benedict Cumberbatch once again going into Sherlock Turing mode. He plays eccentric Edwardian artist and illustrator Louis Wain, a lively and arguably brilliant man who might today be considered neurodiverse, and who certainly suffered from depression. But for all his gifts, Wain finally became famous for just one thing: his hugely successful cute drawings of cats in jokey poses for the Illustrated London News. In Britain – and the US, where he was also popular – Wain could claim to have reinvented the cat as a lovable domestic familiar, the feline version of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. But Wain was stricken with grief at the early death of his wife, naive about money, burdened with the need to provide for his mother and sisters and finally reduced to poverty.

Claire Foy plays Wain’s beloved wife Emily, Andrea Riseborough is uninterestingly directed in a single-note performance as Wain’s shrill and shouty sister; Toby Jones is his long-suffering editor; Phoebe Nicholls has almost nothing to do or say as his mother; and Olivia Colman supplies the droll narration. There is a host of star cameos, including the engagingly weird casting of Nick Cave as Wain’s real-life defender HG Wells, who gallantly made a public plea for financial help for Wain as the champion of all things feline.

The movie is always frantically badgering us with sad or funny or chaotic little vignettes, and often apparently trying to absorb Wain’s syrupy vision by showing us tableaux of the countryside and turning up the colour dial, as if the image had been run through an Instagram filter called Colourised Kitsch. It is also fundamentally muddled about how or whether to celebrate Wain as an artist. His cats first came into being when he started drawing them to amuse his beloved wife as she was dying of cancer. So, are these cats a tragicomic symptom of his inability to express his real feelings? Or are they a vivid and vital kind of outsider art?

Director Will Sharpe is a potent talent whose early movies Black Pond and The Darkest Universe we loved – but this is a strained film, overwhelmed with self-consciousness at its own unearned period-biopic prestige.