Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 51 minutes, Director – Will Sharpe
Victorian artist Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins to be accused of increasing insanity as his drawings of cats, which follow his branded-‘odd’ views that they can be kept as pets, begin to gain worldwide acclaim.
As the doors slowly open up and we’re introduced to the world of Louis Wain the only word that can be used to describe the tone and images that you’re witnessing is ‘whimsical’. There’s a large degree of charming whimsy as the skilled, and slightly shambolic, artist (Benedict Cumberbatch), fresh from a heated interaction with a bull, stumbles through a train where he reveals just the start of his artistic talents, when asked to draw the dog of the man next to him (Adeel Akhtar). The images, and style, feel like they’ve been taken directly from a traditional picturebook of scratchy drawings – even down to the humorous narration of Olivia Colman. Even the performances have that edge to them that creates a form of slightly offbeat familiarity. All kept in a box-like frame to push the idea of Wain’s pictures.
Yet, it’s his pictures, despite bringing in money for his sisters, that cause him to be branded as insane. As he begins to explore the animal world and the images around him, replicating and putting them into various settings, his own world appears to open up. None more so than when taking in a kitten with wife, and former live-in teacher, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy). “You are a prism through which that beam of light refracts” she tells him as his speciality becomes drawings of cats. In a world where people are no longer needed to draw pictures for newspaper articles – cameras have just been introduced – what they truly want in these increasingly dark and uncertain times are images of cats in suits! A new burst of colour and inspiration enter Wain’s life, despite the personal knockbacks that he experiences, and his talents are soon recognised around the world.
However, despite the success that his artwork is experiencing, Wain’s own personal life is struggle after struggle. His family return to him, when everyone finds themselves struggling for money, and he finds himself not the only one labelled as insane. Such elements are largely introduced in the second half of the film, when the true nature of the cat drawings are brought into the narrative, where they create something of a distinct tonal shift from what initially felt like it could be something of a rather charming family(ish) film. It’s a tonal shift that bats back and forth with the original, more charming, nature of the piece and perhaps doesn’t sit as well either. There’s still something watchable and enjoyable present, however the film as a whole doesn’t appear to settle down in a comfortable tone and style once it starts to juggle the various different points and elements that it appears to be tackling.
The humour is certainly still present, although more distant and scattered, and it helps to be brought about by a truly eccentric turn from Cumberbatch – although Wain’s eccentricities are toned down once the plot, and his relationship with Emily becomes the core factor of the piece, before moving on and progressing to other elements and reaches. Visual flourishes still remain, some of which do have an interesting impact; such as a red flare-like flash tinting the screen to indicate the titular figure’s increasing stress and frustration in unfamiliar settings.
Yet, such points and details don’t quite distract from the generally changed nature of the second half, which perhaps doesn’t quite have the same connection that was formed with the contents of the first half, particularly the opening and the fine way in which it establishes its world, characters and style. The course of the plot simply feels uneven in the end from the introduction of the drama which, while still well-handled, makes for something of a tonal shift amongst the otherwise rather enjoyable ‘whimsy’ that the film and its cast of often pleasantly-surprising-to-see British actors have to offer.
While still holding to much of the interesting visual style there’s a drop in charm and eccentricities as the seriousness of The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain’s drama comes to the fore and makes for a series of tonal shifts which slightly bring you out of the world.