Benedict Cumberbatch gives his best performance yet in this sensitive portrayal of the troubled Victorian artist who lovingly brought cats to life
Dir: Will Sharpe. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones. 12A, 111 minutes.
Cats should be eternally grateful to the artist Louis Wain. Before the popularisation of his feline illustrations, which clothed them, humoured them and embroiled them in human mischiefs – brawling, gambling, or playing cricket – the cat had a largely utilitarian function. As his new biopic, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy says, it was Wain who saw them as “ridiculous, silly, cuddly, frightened and brave,” just like people. It was he who vindicated the cat fanciers of late Victorian England and helped normalise the ownership of cats as pets. The expressions he gave them, always saucer-eyed and slightly devilish, even seemed to predict the future rise of the cat meme.
Wain was, by all accounts, a genius. He acquired multiple patents, composed an opera and possessed an intense fascination with electricity’s time-travelling potential. But due to the lightness of his work, that intellect didn’t necessarily manifest in typical ways. It’s a contradiction that isn’t really a contradiction at all, as beautifully argued by Will Sharpe’s portrait of the artist, suitably titled The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. It’s utterly delightful and kaleidoscopic in its construction, in a way that reflects the colourful and abstract designs of Wain’s late-career cats, created after he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
For decades, these pictures were used as evidence of artistic deterioration due to schizophrenia. That diagnosis is now disputed and the pictures themselves held up as an example of an artist simply indulging in the possibilities of his own imagination. Sharpe’s film carries over some of that defiant spirit. It’s alive with cinematic tricks, included subtitled cat voices (“I like jomping!” a tiny kitten declares) and giant cat heads on people’s bodies, as well as unexpected cameos. The musician Nick Cave turns up as HG Wells in order to recite the paean he once wrote for Wain: “he invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world”, it so musically goes.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is also disarmingly tender, blessed with a deep affectation for its subject that feels fuller and more romantic in its nature than straightforward respect. Unlike the usual stories of very clever, very accomplished men that Cumberbatch seems wedded to by destiny, this film doesn’t measure Wain’s personal struggles up against the scope of his contributions. It doesn’t ask you to applaud his sacrifices, or to think that it was all worth it in the end. Wain lived a very sad life. And Cumberbatch, as an actor, has stripped back a few layers of his armour and bared a little more vulnerability – both here and in his ferocious turn in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. These two performances are the best work of his career.
Wain wilts more often than he blossoms. As the film’s narration, provided by Olivia Colman, tells us, he fears what others will think of his cleft lip and the “dark, screaming hurricane of crippling anxieties and recurring nightmares.” He’s the only man, and thus the only hope of proper income, in his entire family – headed by a frail, bohemian mother; kept from crumbling by Wain’s exasperated sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough).
Though it’s impossible to retroactively diagnose Wain, the film does clearly present him as neurodivergent. So is, at least in Sharpe’s vision, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), the family’s tutor and the love of Wain’s life. He first discovers her curled up in a bedroom closet. She says it helps with her concentration. She’s quite different from the usual flame of the cinematic genius, loved not because she can serve as his caretaker but because he’s finally found someone who speaks his language. Shunned by society (she’s a decade older than him and of a lower class), the pair instead open their doors to the little black-and-white cat who wanders into their garden. They pamper him and name him Peter. Wain draws him many times over.
But what begins as a comedy of Victorian manners – accentuated by the rich, fussy quality of Suzie Davies’s interiors and Michael O’Connor’s costumes – grows contemplative when Wain’s life falls apart and his health begins to deteriorate. Here, as well as in shows like Flowers and Landscapers, Sharpe has been able to find beauty within suffering, without demeaning or romanticising the specific conditions he depicts. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a very good biopic – but, even better than that, it offers a wondrous ode to the transformative powers of love and, above all, cats.