Whether he’s in full sartorial Cloak of Levitation splendor as “Doctor Strange” or getting his tweed on in period-piece biopics such as “The Imitation Game” and “The Courier,” Benedict Cumberbatch is one of those stately actors who looks utterly comfortable no matter how fantastical or historically precise the costumes and the surroundings. And he’s squarely in his comfort zone in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” which is about as whimsical a movie you’ll ever see about an artist who is haunted by a dark childhood memory, lost his wife when she was still young and spiraled into destitution and mental illness.
This is one of those extra-British British movies featuring an omniscient, wickedly funny narrator (in this case, the great Olivia Colman) and much talk about how an extended family of noble breeding and good name is constantly struggling to stay out of the poor house — and yet they always seem to be having a grand and raucous old time in a spacious and exceptionally well-appointed home where there’s somehow plenty of food and drink and candles, oh yes, the candles. They might be broke, but they sure as heck ain’t poor.
Director/co-writer Will Sharpe does a splendid job of photographing “Louis Wain” as if we’re seeing the world through the eccentric and beautiful albeit sometimes overwhelmingly vibrant viewpoint of the artist himself, who as a young man is living with his overbearing mother and his five colorful sisters in Victorian London and trying to carve out a living as an illustrator who specializes in portraits of anthropomorphic cats at a time and place when cats were not considered to be anywhere near the equals of dogs as house pets. He greatly improved the cat’s brand, that’s what Louis Wain did!
To the horror of Louis’ judgmental sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) and the scandal of society, Louis strikes up a romance with the family’s new governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy from “The Crown”), who, in the tradition of many a faithful and loyal and smart and wonderful and understanding wife in 19th century biopics, is doomed to not make it out of the movie. (In fact, “The Electrical Life” is faithful to the truth in this case, as the real-life Emily died of breast cancer just three years into the marriage.) Cumberbatch and Foy are lovely together, with Emily providing Louis with the few moments of peace and joy he knows in between mad bouts of creativity and increasingly erratic behavior.
With the considerable support of Illustrated London News editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones, who can roll out of bed and effortlessly kill in roles such as this), not to mention a muse in the form of Peter the cat, who was found by Louis and Emily in their garden, Louis becomes a prolific artist and a huge celebrity when his feline art captivates the land. Alas, what he doesn’t become is financially comfortable, as he keeps forgetting to copyright his work. “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” grows bleaker as Wain’s fortunes plummet and his grasp on reality weakens by the year, but it remains a loving and respectful portrait of a man who created irresistibly adorable kitschy cats more a century before their spiritual descendants were racking up the views on YouTube.