It’s awards season, and thus it’s an inevitability that there’s a biopic of a tortured genius hoping for Oscar gold. The genius in question is Louis Wain, a Victorian artist famous for his surreal paintings of cats, the popularity of which went some way to making them more common as house pets.
Fresh from Spider-Man: No Way Home, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain in an abstract story of his unusual life. A quirky man pre-occupied with inventions and electricity, his skill for drawing gets him a job providing illustrations for a London paper that helps him support his many sisters following the death of their father. He brings the family into disrepute when he falls for his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), retreating to the country where the pair make the unusual step of taking in a kitten called Peter. Both Emily and Peter inspire his art, but as the former’s health declines, Wain’s fragile mind begins to unravel.
Narrated by Olivia Colman, the film’s pace and vibrant presentation bring to mind Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. Sadly, the plot doesn’t match the visuals, too often sticking to the tortured genius tropes and barely concealing its aspirations of being a by-the-numbers awards movie. The swaying between comedy and tragedy can be disorientating, leaving the audience wondering just what point the film is trying to make about Wain other than some truisms about the repression of the Victorian era.
Things are elevated by the talented cast, who pour humanity into their performances. Foy’s performance is endearing but all-too-brief, as she and Cumberbatch share a chemistry that lights up the screen, only to be absent in the second half when he is alone once again. The star has plenty of other capable scene partners, however, especially Toby Jones as Wain’s editor, who sees something behind the eccentricity. A number of comedy heavyweights pop up in small roles, including Richard Ayoade, and Taika Waititi in another “oh look its him” cameo.
The spotlight is mainly on Cumberbatch, however, who doesn’t shrink from its gaze. Yes, this is the kind of tick-filled savant character seen in films such as The Imitation Game (Wain is a little bit more bumbling), but it’s the type of character Cumberbatch can excel in. There is a frustration to watching him move through a world that doesn’t seem build to contain him, and the audience lives the nightmare of his declining sanity as his performance is paired with unsettling visuals.
Despite a lot of uneven moments, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is at its heart a story of love, strength, and cats. Even the hardest heart would find that combination difficult to resist.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is in cinemas from 1st January