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Posts Tagged ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’

A curious quirk of the release schedule means that we are currently experiencing something close to Peak Cumberbatch, with all of the facets of that actor’s career in play. Blockbuster Cumberbatch is doing sterling work as one of the key supporting performers in the current Spider-Man film, while Acclaimed Thespian Cumberbatch has already started to pick up gongs for his role in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (I would have seen that at the cinema a couple of months ago but for a small person in the house testing positive for the virus). Quite which Cumberbatch is exec producing and starring in Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain isn’t immediately clear – probably Doing It Purely For The Artistic Merit Cumberbatch.

I had no idea who Louis Wain was before seeing the trailer for this film, but apparently he was a key figure in the rise of cats as popular house pets and the perpetrator, or should I say creator, of a large number of twee cat pictures around the turn of the last century. Cumberbatch plays Wain, as you might expect, from young adulthood until old age: he is well-served by the prosthetics and hair department in this. The film opens with Wain as a struggling young illustrator, responsible for supporting his widowed mother and five younger sisters. What the family really needs is for him to get a steady job, such as the one he has just been offered by Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), editor of the Illustrated London News, but he is convinced that working on various electrical patents is of greater importance, not to mention trying to get an opera he has written mounted (he has invented his own system of harmonics, naturally).

Things are made even more problematic when the eldest Wain sister (Andrea Riseborough) hires a governess named Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to aid in the education of the younger members of the household. Everyone is rather shocked when, in a taboo-busting development, Louis and Emily fall passionately in love (the script indicates this is because of the social divide between them; apparently, the age gap – she was ten years older – was more of an issue in real life, but the film elects to duck this, probably wisely).

Married life proves difficult for the Wains, despite the strength of their bond, and with no let-up in sight, a further surprise is heralded with the arrival of a black and white cat, a cat which leads Louis to a burst of unexpected artistic activity.

Or, to put it another way: a lot of twee cat pictures. Yes, I suppose that whatever your feelings about internet cat videos, you would be within your rights to consider Louis Wain to be the godfather of the form. Well, I suppose the milieu and the fact this is an actor-led romantic comedy-drama mean that this is the sort of film with a good chance of finding an audience, especially if you release it at the right time of year.

This one is distinguished by fine performances, especially by Cumberbatch: he initially appears to be just giving us a slightly cartoony spod, but as the film goes on it becomes clear that Wain was a man whose unique way of thinking was a sign, perhaps, of a deeper perturbation in his psyche, and the movie becomes increasingly poignant – and Cumberbatch deals with this quite as well as the comic romance. On the other hand, there is a slight tendency towards wacky or stunt casting which is a bit distracting – Richard Ayoade plays Sir Henry Wood, the increasingly inescapable Taika Waititi plays the American newspaperman Max Kase, and Nick Cave pops up as a rather unexpected H. G. Wells.

This is perhaps much of a piece with the tone of the rest of the film. The film is framed by a distinctly arch narration, provided by Olivia Colman (possibly some royal edict has been passed where, if you hire Claire Foy, you have to eventually hire Colman too), which makes it clear that it is going to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, to say the least. You could call this artful or playful; or you could simply conclude that the writers are just terribly pleased with themselves and it’s all a bit precious, bordering on the actually affected. There’s a mannered, fable-like atmosphere to most of the film, but one which it deliberately goes out of its way to undermine: characters mutter unexpected and unlikely profanities, and there are moments when bleak and harrowing realism thrust their way onto the screen.

To be honest, I found the film rather hard work – for a film which clearly wants to say something about serious and mature topics like grief, the creative process, and mental illness, too much of it is chintzy and actively twee – as Wain’s mental health declines, he begins to believe that his cats are actually talking to him, which is reflected by their being given subtitled dialogue whenever they mew or miaow. You could probably argue that the stylings of the film are an attempt to echo Wain’s own artistic sensibility, but this is only really a good thing if you enjoy looking at pictures of anthropomorphic cats being cute. (I am aware there is a substantial constituency who do.)

I would have said that if you’re going to do a bio-pic of a historical figure, it’s usually best to pick someone who did something famous or at least significant. Why an obscure painter of a twee cat pictures should qualify for the honour is something I really don’t know. (Legions of cat lovers will now mobilise against me, obviously.) And yet, and yet – the acting in this film is excellent, the story is certainly interesting, and the visual style of the piece was just about striking enough to keep my attention throughout – but it was a close thing. One of those films which is on the border between the interestingly different and the annoyingly contrived – and I’m not quite sure which side.

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