No stranger to playing characters working at a higher frequency, Benedict Cumberbatch is an astute pick to play prolific cat painter Louis Wain in this wonderfully off-kilter period biopic. Director Will Sharpe takes a witty and playful approach to Wain’s eccentric life as a 19th century artist known mostly for his anthropomorphised feline subjects. But this is also a tender story about mental health that is both imaginatively and empathetically portrayed.
Cumberbatch delivers a vibrating performance as Wain, whose dexterous skill with a pencil has earned him a full-time gig as an illustrator at the Illustrated London News, with a little help from father-like editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones). His own dad’s death has left him in charge of a boisterous but cash-strapped household of five sisters and a mother. A love affair with governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) gives way tragedy, followed by success, and the artist’s increasingly surreal and psychedelic cat pictures begin to reflect his deteriorating sanity.
It’s an effervescent movie, one that reflects the colourful whimsy of Wain’s work and a far more vivid image of Victorian and Edwardian England than your usual period film (kudos to Suzie Davies’s dynamic set design).
A dry wit echoes throughout but The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is not without sincerity too. Cumberbatch and Foy both balance those two tones superbly and their dynamic is endearing to follow, especially when a filter of melancholy is added. Narrated by Olivia Colman, the film is well-paced and performed, with a brilliant supporting turn from Andrea Riseborough as Wain’s eldest sister Caroline. It’s an affable biopic about a great but troubled man, with plenty of artistic spirit of its own.
In UK cinemas Jan 1, 2022.