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Electrical Life of Louis Wain, The


Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Adeel Akhtar, Phoebe Nicholls, Sharon Rooney, Taika Waititi. Voice: Olivia Colman

Director: Will Sharpe

A strange, whimsical and modestly eccentric biopic of a very eccentric Victorian. Narrated in somewhat anachronistic style by Colman, our story, beginning in 1881, focuses on Louis Wain (Cumberbatch, veering towards caricature), a stringy young man whose droopy moustache conceals not only a hare lip but an off-kilter temperament that might, in the jargon of the time, be described as 'not quite all there'.

Living with his mother (Nicholls, right on key), sourpuss older sister (Riseborough. a little too shrill) and four younger sisters, Louis embarks on writing 'operas' that aren't, taking painful boxing lessons, drawing his own nightmares and getting gored by bulls.

He also draws portraits of people's pets - but nothing likely to increase the meagre income of his aristocratic but impoverished family. A slice of that has been given over to hire Emily, a governess (a luminous Foy) for the three youngest daughters. Why Emily is discovered hiding in a closet when Louis meets her is never quite clear, but as Colman puts it, Louis feels 'a tingle in his loins' and has soon plucked up the courage to ask her to a concert.

Receiving a contract to draw for the Illustrated Evening News after showing its owner (Jones) his portraits of cats - both cartoonish and true to life - and marrying Emily, Louis becomes a changed man who soon introduces a real-live cat into their family.

After tragedy strikes, however, the film gradually develops into a sort of Goodbye, Mr Cats, to the point where one almost expects an aged and mentally fragile Wain, on his deathbed, to gasp '...all my cats'.

Some very painterly images from the director and his cameraman (Erik Alexander Wilson) do as much to bring a lump to the throat as the film's more emotional moments in its picaresque storyline, while the script's two four-letter words see merely inserted for the purpose of obtaining a 12A certificate. Still, bouquets to Technicolor; only this company could perhaps have conveyed the richness of the images portrayed here.

David Quinlan

UK 2021. UK Distributor: StudioCanal (Amazon). Technicolor.
111 minutes. Not widescreen (4 x 3). UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 09 Jan 2022