Telluride: Cumberbatch goes from “The Power of the Dog” to “The Ridiculousness of the Cat” in a wacky biopic that’s just whiskers.
After Benedict Cumberbatch delivered the best and most unexpected performance of his career in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”, he retreats to more familiar territory in a bizarre Victorian biopic that might as well be called “The Ridiculousness of the Cat”. When it comes to late 19th and early 20th century artist Louis Wain – whose enchanting illustrations of wide-eyed moggies effectively invented our modern understanding of cats as domestic friends – “ridiculousness” is of course meant with the utmost affection. After all, Wain himself was a ridiculous man, at least by the strictly classical standards of his time.
Wain was an eccentric polymath who made up his lack of human knowledge with a learned talent for drawing animals (his talents as a pianist, boxer, and mad scientist were a little less impressive), Wain was probably the kind of person it would be with Diagnosed with anything from ADHD to borderline personality disorder if he were alive today. But Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” deals far less with the uncertain details of his subject’s mental health than with the warmth and mood he brought to the world – or mainly because – how differently he saw it.
“You are a prism through which the ray of life breaks,” his wife Emily (Claire Foy) tells him at one point, but Sharpe’s portrait is so determined to capture the full rainbow of Wain’s unique hues that it soon becomes one tangled soup made from mismatched quirks. The result is a sweet but exaggerated fable that ultimately comes close to the cinematic equivalent of a cat drawing: cute, harmless and easily annoying for anyone who has to stare at it for 111 minutes.
Cumberbatch is predictably superb in the manic and mustached title role; perhaps too predictable, as the actor’s cleaned up portrayals of history-changing nerds (from Thomas Edison and Alan Turing to Julian Assange and The Grinch) are starting to blur in ways that can make a man like Louis Wain feel like sui generis someone that we’ve seen before. But Louis’ gifts are modest and unusual enough to get noticed. Its defining superpower is its ability to draw anything in seconds – a pencil in each hand, the tips of which scribble across the page with the precision of an inkjet printer.
It’s a talent he happily flaunts to the editor of The Illustrated London News (Toby Jones as Sir William Ingram), a tough man who is impressed enough nonetheless to offer Wain a job. Unfortunately Louis is almost as bad with money as he is good with sketches, and so he refuses – to the enormous annoyance of his eldest sister Caroline, a frightened, delicate problem child played by the always chameleon-like Andrea Riseborough. A bitter pill to swallow when you consider that Louis is the only man in a family teeming with signed women, and the Wains are facing a financial crisis on “Howard’s End” proportions. Louis reluctantly reconsiders when Caroline declares that she can’t afford a governess for her other siblings, but our hero’s frown is turned upside down when he sees the job.
The ensuing romance between Louis and the similarly eccentric Emily would be awkward even without the scandal – he’s a “gentleman” and she belongs to the submissive class – but you don’t get in the way between two people who are so good at seeing one another the beauty that exists in this world. They marry despite strong objections from Caroline and the other ladies of Wain Manor (one of whom is played by the great Stacy Martin, wasted as the glorified extra) and move into a delightful thatched cottage in 1884 on a stretch of the British countryside that like seems peeled from the pages of a fairy tale. On the same day Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, the couple encounters a growling kitten (they call him Peter) in their backyard, who, according to the script, forever links Louis’ imminent grief with his love for cats by Sharpe and Simon Stephenson would rather not unpack. The same goes for Louis’ recurring nightmares, which seem to stem from a childhood boating incident.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” isn’t even halfway over when the edges are soaked with sadness and the long and unpredictable film that follows Emily’s death stumbles through more than 25 years of loneliness as Sharpe struggles to close enough history find to justify their imaginative narrative. The film is shot in fairytale 4: 3 and peppered with creative flourishes that cannot compensate for the interrupted linearity of its plot (e.g. brother Arthur, who uses the theremin better than any film since “First Man”). “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” searches high and low for the animating spark that its namesake imagines as the life force of all things – human, feline or artistic.
The film is certainly easy on the eyes, even if its surface pleasures only go so far. Picture-book movies and crazy enough Dutch angles to make Kenneth Branagh smile, hold your gaze before Louis even starts imagining that everyone he meets has cats’ heads during a narrative annoying trip to the New Pre-war York is redeemed by impressive digital backgrounds and a tracking shot that contains its own electrical charge. Sharpe finds renewed focus in Louis’ decline and ultimately institutionalization, as vague Guy Maddin-esque visuals and subtitled cat dialogues (“I like jomping”) appeal to the psychedelic genius of Wain’s late work. And not for nothing, but at a time when apparently all films have to contain cameos by Richard Ayoade or Taika Waititi, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is the rare work brave enough to make room for both create.
Another exquisite and far more unexpected cameo awaits the audience in the final minutes. “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is the type of movie where every new flair draws attention to the weak foundation underneath. At some point the die has come so far that you could hope Sharpe doubled over with cheesy surprises. Why not spice up Louis’ trip to New York by meeting Cumberbatch’s Thomas Edison from “The Current War”? Perhaps they have more to say to each other than their respective biopics have to say about them.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. Amazon Prime will launch it in theaters on Friday October 22nd. It will be streamed on Amazon Prime starting Friday, November 5th.