Producers: Guy Heeley, Ed Clarke, Adam Ackland and Leah Clarke Director: Will Sharpe Screenplay: Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Taika Waititi, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Asim Chaudhry, Crystal Clarke, Daniel Rigby, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Dorothy Atkinson, Nick Cave and Olivia Coleman Distributor: Amazon Studios
If there’s such a thing as a whimsical tragedy, this film certainly fills the bill. It would be difficult to overstate the ravishing visual beauty of Will Sharpe’s biographical sketch about Louis Wain, a Victorian and Edwardian-era illustrator whose career extended into World War I. Every frame features gorgeous production design by Suzie Davies and elegant costumes by Michael O’Connor, captured in creamily luscious cinematography by Erik Alexander Wilson, though the film is shot in the boxy 4:3 ratio, perhaps to simulate the feeling of a canvas on screen. (Viewers are advised not to try to stretch the images into widescreen format.) But the combination of whimsy and melancholy with which Sharpe and his co-screenwriter Simon Stephenson have chosen to tell Wain’s story, with affectedly humorous narration delivered by Olivia Coleman, often comes across as cringing rather than engaging.
That’s partially due to the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch, a fine actor who here rarely misses a tic in conveying the awkwardness and myriad eccentricities of the man who achieved fame with his drawings of anthropomorphized, huge-eyed cats that enthralled a worldwide public and, it’s argued here, helped to enhance feline prominence as household pets.
Wain is introduced in 1881 as a nervous young man, a scatterbrain of sorts overwhelmed by a profusion of interests—not only his artistic work but a fascination with the power of electricity and a devotion to amateur boxing—but the responsibility of supporting a large, demanding family. He’s the sole support of his austere widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and six sisters, the eldest of whom, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), is a screaming shrew who constantly berates him about shaping up and bring in more money.
His fortunes improve when his facility at quick sketching earns him a position with The London Illustrated News through the generosity, and tolerance, of its owner-editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones). He also finds romance in the person of Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), the governess hired by Caroline for his younger sisters. Their halting mutual attraction is immediately evident, though stridently opposed by Caroline, who considers the thought of her brother consorting with a mere servant a stain on the family honor.
But they ignore her and marry, setting up a joyous household in a fairytale-style rustic house, and adopting a sweet black-and-white kitten they happen upon, drenched, during a ramble during a rainstorm. Naming him Peter, they treat him like the child they’ve never had. But tragedy intervenes when Emily is stricken with cancer after only three years of marital bliss. Louis is of course disconsolate.
In his grief he repeatedly draws sketches of Peter, which Ingram begins publishing, and they prove an enormous hit with the public. As he turns to his more flamboyant portrayals of felines engaged in all sorts of human activity, the popularity of the kitschy stuff (not very far removed from dogs playing poker) becomes an absolute phenomenon, bringing Wain fame, wealth, and even an offer as an illustrator from William Randolph Hearst, which takes him to New York.
But tragedy again strikes, suffusing the film’s last act. The youngest of Louis’ sisters suffers uncontrollable seizures, perhaps a case of schizophrenia, and must be installed in an asylum. And his own mental faculties deteriorate—perhaps the result of the same condition, though experts dispute the diagnosis. His plan to produce a line of ceramic, futuristic cat toys is literally torpedoed in naval action in the Atlantic. In the end he’s reduced to penury and is discovered by an old acquaintance as a pathetic figure in a public mental ward, triggering an outpouring of support—a kind of early twentieth-century go-fund-me campaign for his treatment—spearheaded by none other than author H.G. Wells (Nick Cave).
Exactly how to take Sharpe’s take on Wain is up to the individual viewer. On the one hand, the lovely images, even in the latter stages, seem aimed to be enchanting, especially given Arthur Sharpe’s determinedly quirky score. On the other, the gloomy turn the tale takes at the halfway point grows even darker in the final re and is likely to leave one depressed, despite Selina MacArthur’s editing, which is smooth apart from a few jagged montages that reflect Wain’s mental dislocation. To be honest, moreover, Wain’s illustrations of anthropomorphic cats actually seem a trifle grotesque rather than charming. And Cumberbatch’s excessively high-strung performance, along with Riseborough’s stridently one-note one, are sometimes hard to take as well.
There’s considerable pleasure to be had, however, in the more laid-back turns of Foy and Jones, and in the many delicious shots of real-life felines scattered throughout the film—which must have taxed their handlers no end.
Most people nowadays won’t know who Louis Wain was. Coming out of this film, it’s probable one will sympathize with him as a likable but unlucky man, but not exalt him as a great artist.