The Electrical Life of Louis Wain review – Cumberbatch’s cat artist drowns in quirk

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of eccentric Edwardian artist famed for his cute cats is brimful of star cameos but gets lost in mannered performances

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?

Or – if in our hearts we think his cats are rather silly and boring – should we be interested in Louis Wain for other reasons entirely? The film repeatedly imagines Wain to be obsessed with the “electricity” that is everywhere all about us, and so seems to be claiming a kind of Tesla-ish status for him (or maybe something like electricity icon Thomas Edison, whom Cumberbatch played in The Current War): a visionary who isn’t part of the establishment. But in the end Wain didn’t leave us anything – other than his daft cats.

The problem of how seriously to take these mawkish images was something that Tim Burton faced with his 2014 film Big Eyes, with Amy Adams as the American popular artist Margaret Keane who in the 60s drew pictures of sweet little kids with big eyes. But that had a bit more to say about sexual stereotyping and artistic authorship.

Well, this film does give us some well-acted scenes. There is a brilliant moment when, as his wife is nearing her end, Louis bustles with desperate, determined cheerfulness into her sickroom with her breakfast, looks at Emily (who is out of shot) and then suddenly looks away and we follow him as he bustles out of the room. All at once, we know the terrible truth of what he has seen, and it is a clever, sympathetically indirect touch.

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

• The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is screening at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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