‘Louis Wain’ review: Cumberbatch as cat painter no meow-sterpiece

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If you thought cat memification was a product of the internet, you may not know Louis Wain. The Victorian-era polymath became famous for his illustrations of anthropomorphized cats in bow ties and hats, tea parties, and tennis games. Later, a bit like the Beatles’ time with “Revolver,” Wain’s kitty kitsch art went psychedelic, which became evidence of a posthumous diagnosis of schizophrenia – one that is still controversial.

Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” co-written by Simon Stephenson, does not attempt to resolve this debate, but it relies on his imaginative potential so that Wain’s turbulent inner life can be revealed as an explosion in time. quirky factory. Wain vacillates between Wain’s huge repertoire of eccentricities for comedies and their pathos, the film ends so busy, bizarre that he forgets to actually act about everything. If you don’t know who Louis Wain was before you see it, you’ll be just slightly more enlightened and potentially much more irritated afterward.

The latest in a string of tormented geniuses played by Benedict Cumberbatch – perhaps the leading actor benefiting from the tendency to fuse extremely clever with very thin and British – Wain’s version of the film comes across as a tick-laden naive who, as he later admits, simply finds life in this world more difficult than for anyone else. Forever wearing the facial expression of a man who has just awakened from a stage magician’s trance, he runs erratically, swims ridiculously, boxing hilariously, and speaks through a rabbit-lip-covering mustache with all the twitching, blinking weirdness of a bird that suddenly turns inside one human body. However, he has his followers, such as Sir William Ingram (a warm-hearted Toby Jones), the editor of a London gazette, who overlooks Wain’s unconventionality in order to focus on his usefully quick, two-handed drawing style.

The illustrations that Wain produces for the newspaper – between composing operas, bleeding his nose in the boxing ring and indulging his semi-mystical interest in the new science of electricity – may keep Wain, his mother and five sisters solvent, far from their refinement before the Wain’s father dies. With Louis ill-equipped to take on the position of head of household and his mother vague and ineffective, his sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) stepped in, and a proper, unanimous nagging Harridan that it made you of.

Benedict Cumberbatch and a feline friend in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

(Amazon Studios)

When Caroline hires Emily (Claire Foy) to be the governess of the younger girls, the Wain family briefly turns up. And then, in a tragedy hinted at by Erik Wilson’s unsteady, sentimental cinematography, where golden lens flares have a tendency to cloud the image like dripping tears, the madman crumbles when Emily is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

This happens on the same day that the couple finds a kitten in their garden, which they – contrary to the convention at the time – adopt as a pet. Peter, as the little black-and-white Moggie is called, begins to play a role in Wain’s drawings, and at Sir Williams’ encouragement he soon begins to draw more or less cats. These cat pictures, whose copyright the unworldly Wain neglects, bring him transatlantic fame (he visits New York once to work for the Hearst group). But are they the delightful manifestations of a wistful creative imagination or the nightmarish harbingers of a looming mental illness?

It’s a question that “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” doesn’t care much about. Not that the film has any claws, but when it comes to Wain’s mental state, he beats the subject with the softest paws. Instead, Sharpe embellishes the story as a misdirection with a whole cabinet of filmmaker tchotchkes from an entire grandmother, only a few of whom work. (Black Pond and the TV series Flowers are among the filmmaker’s better-observed forays into dark and comical descriptions of psychological instability.) A clever note: the narrative, delivered by Olivia Colman with a bedtime voice who is so dry and delightful at times manages to get you to think that what she’s saying isn’t just a lot of hurray.

More often the flourishes are just a distraction: drive-by cameos by Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade and Nick Cave; occasional use of old world pinhole camera images to describe Wain’s nocturnal horrors; a couple of times late when a landscape becomes muddy and oversaturated and blurs into a synthetic replica of a painting. Not to mention the bizarre decision to subtitle just one scene of the cat dialogue in such cute LOLcatspeak (“I am a cat” says one, “I like jomping” says the other) that you half expect one of them to ask whether he can have Cheezburger.

All of these whims are applied with so little rigor and so little actual insight that it quickly gets boring, which makes the running time of the movie feel exponentially longer than it is without it – and this is a critical mistake for ailurophiles who look after a good time looking – actually give us almost enough cat. Of all the movie’s many disappointments, this is certainly the most egregious. It’s almost enough to blame Sharpe for being – horror! – a dog person.

“The Electric Life of Louis Wain”

Rating: PG-13, for some thematic material and strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Release: Starts Friday at Landmark, Los Angeles; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Lämmle City Center 5, Encino; Streaming on November 5th on Prime Video