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Cat's Cradle

Jaap Buitendijk/Amazon Studios

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021)

Benedict Cumberbatch turns up his eccentricity to 11 in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” as the titular Victorian era artist whose claim to fame is drawing cats for The Illustrated London News. He was apparently also into electricity and patents, which the film glosses over despite the titular reference – but it shows enough here to remind us of the time Mr. Cumberbatch played Thomas Edison in “The Current War: Director’s Cut.”

As it turns out, the film is not much about cats, either. Wain’s head is in the clouds, with his attention split at whim between illustrating, inventing and composing opera. When he suddenly becomes head of the household, in charge of his mother and five sisters, he is confronted with practical concerns at the urging of sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) so that the family might maintain its class status. He soon becomes smitten with Emily (Claire Foy), the governess for his kid sisters, despite the difference in their social standings. With the advent of photography, Wain’s services as an illustrator are no longer required at the paper. He then turns his attention to drawing his pet cat, Peter, which catches newspaper editor Sir William Ingram’s (Toby Jones) eye and prompts him to commission a holiday spread.

Narrated by Olivia Colman to storybook effect, the film boasts picturesque shots aplenty. Curiously, writer-director Will Sharpe chooses to not compose the scenery with Wain’s art style. Just like with the Academy aspect ratio, a lot of art direction has been applied liberally if not arbitrarily.

Ultimately, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is undone by its tedious attention to biographical detail. Little attention is paid to how these key events meaningfully transformed Wain, and if it weren’t for Ms. Colman’s narration one wouldn’t even notice there was a change. William Randolph Hearst would ultimately offer him a job with the New York American, but Wain’s family and finances still would not improve; and this is where the film starts to drag. As the story heads toward a tragic end, the choice of having Ms. Colman narrate comes off as yet another superficial artistic choice that makes no sense.


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