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Review: 'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' (2021) Dir. Will Sharpe

Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Jamie Demetriou, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney and Olivia Colman


A biographical drama of "cat man" artist Louis Wain, famous for his anthropomorphized large-eyed cats and kittens, helps to show a glimpse of the man behind a name few many know...

Aspiring artist Louis Wan (Cumberbatch) is living and working in Victorian England as society is on the cusp new discoveries and developments, such as electricity.

Louis is a man battling the odds as he supports his family at home and juggles freelance work, but finds solace with new wife Emily Richardson (Foy) who bounce of each other against all that life throw at them.

As an outlet for the strains of life, Louis takes to painting eclectic images of his adopted kitten "Peter", and finds that his feline art captures the imagination of many and speaks louder about his lifestyle than he ever could dream...

The true biopic of eccentric and visionary artist Louis Wain, who suffered from possible schizophrenia, whose fascination with cats in art spoke to millions around the world, and is even now engrained in our society of feline appreciation.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the go-to Brit actor for the Victorian, well-spoken and slightly off-the-wall portrayals he has done so well over the years. Here as Wain, he is kitted out with waxy moustache, slightly unkempt hair and a quick-witted script for his usual by the book, fast paced acting that would be fitting to stage as much as screen. Partnered with Claire Foy as his love interest, she is equally full of zest, energy and likeable passion as she does her best to keep the Wain household in some sort of order as Governess to his five sisters. Foy is perfect alongside Cumberbatch, with her often ditsy Emily Richardson not afraid to show some real heart and compassion in finding love with Wain and the journey they take from those who are quick to judge.

Cumberbatch reminds us what he does best away from the big blockbusters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe he is associated with. He plays Wain with childlike innocence, a man plagued with mental health issues but who sees the best in everything and everyone, living a life seeking to fulfil his ambitions in art and romance. Knowing little about Wain, the film helps shed some light on this remarkable man, but wrapped up in a sugary coating for a gentle family audience. This is not as intense a portrayal for Cumberbatch as Alan Turning in The Imitation Game or The Current War, but he still channels everything that has helped make him a faithful and dependable British actor helping bring some historical facts and figures to wider audiences.

Cumberbatch and Foy make for some nice tender moments during these sequences, but without any material to really cause great offence, upset or emotional angst.

A gentle opening hour to establish our period, characters and relationships then allows the exploration of what the fascination of cats meant to Wain, which is much more than just a cute expression. It goes a little deeper to see what psychological aid it provided the Wain family, and what distractions or support his art offered. The Wains family keep their performances grounded for maximum effect to keep these characters real. We also have strong support from acting veterans such as Toby Jones, Jamie Demetriou and even a cameo from Taika Waititi and stiff-upper lip narration by Olivia Colman.

Director Will Sharpe has experience with British culture, such as his behind the scenes work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and acting in films and television such as Sherlock and Giri/Haji. This marks one of his biggest feature films as director and writer, and he surrounds himself with the experience and knowledge amassed over the years for those in front of and behind the camera.

There is little here that will surprise fans of the Victorian England drama, but it will impress. The set design, costume and script is something the Brits do second to none for this period, blending tender emotion, humane drama and light-hearted humour for all ages. From summer sun and busy cobbled streets, to golden autumnal walks by the river or winter snow crisp on market stalls, we have it all illuminated by gentle candlelight and the use of some CGI art effects to highlight Wain's vision, mood and change in period.

With much more to this story than just cats and comedy, it explores social status, grief, loss and mental health. Yet there is just enough energy from a score by Arthur Sharpe (channelling some Danny Elfman surrealism in there) and Colman's narration that the pace is kept going before it caves in to wallow in it's own seriousness.

This quirky drama does just what is expected from the outset, with another dependable performance by Cumberbatch shedding light on another little known name in British history.

'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' is a co-production between StudioCanal, Film4 Productions, Amazon Studios, Shoebox and SunnyMarch

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