The Electrical Life of Louis Wain: Starry but misfiring biopic

Benedict Cumberbatch plays yet another eccentric in this portrait of a Victorian artist

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
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Director: Will Sharpe
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin
Runing Time: 1 hr 51 mins

A few weeks ago we noted that, in The Power of the Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to have escaped typecasting as a class of busy, neuroatypical genius. Sherlock Strangely-Turing is back again for this puzzling, sometimes charming, sometimes infuriating study of the whimsical English artist Louis Wain. The film makes the claim that Wain, who died as late as 1939, normalised the keeping of cats as pets. Whether this is entirely true or not, his obsession with drawing the creatures – first naturalistically, then anthropomorphically, eventually in anticipation of psychedelia – helped put them at the centre of British culture.

Will Sharpe's sub-Tim Burton drama makes the mistake of cramming the meat of the story into its opening half. Wain is seen striving to support his family as a commercial artist in Victorian London. He has no gift for normality, but his supernatural talents as a draughtsman – able to produce a beautiful likeness in mere minutes – impress William Ingram (Toby Jones), editor of the Illustrated London News, and he secures work for that prestigious periodical. Life becomes a bit more colourful when he falls for his sisters' governess (Claire Foy) and, in defiance of class convention, they get married. Illness divides them and he is left with his drawings and his cats.

A first-class cast makes the most of statically drawn characters. Toby Jones is always reliable as the decent sort in the corner. Foy somehow convinces us that love could really cause someone to show patience for a man as infuriating as this version of Louis Wain. Andrea Riseborough, never bettered, frets the edges of the frame into rags as one of the awkward sisters.

Had we seen none of Cumberbatch’s earlier troubled intellectuals, we might embrace his performance with enthusiasm. But there are a few too many familiar manoeuvres for comfort in a performance that treads water throughout. The lead is not helped by a fussy, whimsical production design that threatens to engulf us in the aesthetics of Wain’s art, but which stops just short of total commitment. It’s as if Tim Burton were scratching at the door to get in.

Following the death of Wain’s wife, the film loses energy and settles into a worthy plod towards a modestly satisfactory ending and one of the strangest celebrity cameos we have encountered this year. Who released those bats?

Released on January 1st