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► The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is in UK cinemas from December 29. 

Not all cat-lovers will love the drawings of cats that made the Victorian Louis Wain so famous. Exceptionally skilled though they are, and full of humour, most of them depict cats as pseudo-humans, standing on their hind legs wearing clothes, carousing around a table, lounging in armchairs smoking cigars, driving cars or playing golf. Amusing enough, but this misses what’s most attractive about cats, their essential catness: their independence, their feline indifference to almost all the activities that delight or obsess human beings.

Among Wain’s fans was H.G. Wells, who proclaimed in a radio broadcast that features in Will Sharpe’s film: “He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.” Which is, of course, rubbish. Wells does appear briefly on screen – played, anomalously enough, by Nick Cave (next up, Mick Jagger as George Bernard Shaw?).

Still, anyone who likes cats – and we do see plenty of real ones, since Sharpe refused to use CGI animals and recruited 40 or so genuine moggies into his cast, hazards of cat-herding notwithstanding – or who appreciates Benedict Cumberbatch at his quirkiest, should enjoy The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Aptly, Cumberbatch’s previous film was Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog – but his role there, as a brutal, hardbitten Montana rancher, could hardly be more different from his nervous, awkward Louis Wain. Sporting a beaky prosthetic nose and an apologetic air, Cumberbatch appealingly conveys the impression of a man constantly under siege, whether from his widowed mother and his pack of five demanding younger sisters, his employer (Toby Jones, shrewdly blending sympathy with profit instinct as Sir William Ingram, editor of the Illustrated London News) or the arcane electrical impulses that he comes to believe control the universe.

The film falls into three sections, broadly: comedy, romance and tragedy. The first section, set in the early 1880s, finds Louis returning from a country show where he’s sketched animals of all kinds. There are many more animals on the train, and we’re shown the prodigious speed and fluency of his drawing. Back home, he’s pestered by his six dependent family members, the most demanding being his scolding oldest sister Caroline (a thankless role for Andrea Riseborough). Dialogue in these scenes (by Sharpe and co-screenwriter Simon Stephenson) is fast, frivolous and overlapping, the young women often all talking at once while Louis tries to fend off their demands. Much emphasis is placed (especially by Caroline) on preserving ‘respectability’ in a Victorian world marked by – to quote Olivia Colman’s voiceover narration – “its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit”.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021)
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021)
© Courtesy of StudioCanal

Social prejudices emerge in force when Louis falls for Emily Richardson (a luminous Claire Foy), governess to his youngest sisters. Braving Caroline’s disapproval and the sniping of their snobby neighbour (Dorothy Atkinson), Louis and Emily marry and move to a cottage in Hampstead. Their happiness is short-lived; Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Consolation comes in the form of a black-and-white kitten found mewing in the garden. They name him Peter, and he’s represented as the source of Louis’s preoccupation with cats.

After Emily’s death the mood darkens, as despite Louis’s growing fame (from which, naive over copyrights, he derived sadly little financial benefit) his grief feeds into his mental deterioration. On a trip to New York (featuring an unexpected cameo from Taika Waititi) he sees the audience at a talk he’s giving as ranks of anthropomorphised cats; on the liner home the recurrence of a childhood nightmare convinces him he’s drowning. His later cat pictures become increasingly bizarre and near-surrealist, and an asylum awaits.

Despite the downbeat second half, the film retains its eccentric charm, thanks not least to Colman’s amused, affectionate voiceover, production designer Suzie Davies’s often near-kaleidoscopic visuals, and the divertingly idiosyncratic score, composed by Sharpe’s brother Arthur and incorporating such esoteric instruments as the theremin and the musical saw. The film is shot in the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, which Sharpe and his DP, Erik Wilson, chose for its “storybook, fairy-tale quality” and for reflecting the format of Wain’s drawings. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain confirms Sharpe’s reputation, based on his features Black Pond (2011) and The Darkest Universe (2016) – both co-directed with Tom Kingsley – as one of our most unpredictably individual film-makers.