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Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy

“THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN”  My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Whimsical charm and heartbreaking tragedy achieve a life-affirming reconciliation in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” a mostly-factual biopic in which Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of his most memorable performances as a true English eccentric.

In his prime Louis Wain (1860 – 1939) was one of England’s most popular illustrators, a sort of artistic idiot savant who could churn out artwork at an amazing pace, painting or drawing using both hands simultaneously. 

His subject matter was equally odd — he specialized in portraits of cats,  often anthropomorphizing them. (You know the poker-playing dog paintings? Same idea, only with felines.) Before Louis Wain the British public regarded cats not as pets but as working animals whose job was to control the rodent population; his widely disseminated artwork turned that notion inside out.

At the onset of Will Sharpe’s film  (Sharpe also co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Stephenson) we find  Louis (Cumberbatch) working part time for a London newspaper editor (Toby Jones) who appreciates the artist’s keen eye and speed in producing drawings of country life, especially animals like bulls, sheep and fowl. (This was before newspapers could reproduce photographs.)

Beyond his skills as an illustrator,  Louis is a tad wacko.  He has theories about undetected electrical currents permeating all existence. (Later in life he would lecture that cats would evolve into superhuman creatures and turn blue in the process.)

He’s an emotionally constipated  social misfit in a late-Victorian world that is all about propriety. He’s a loner who does not play well with others…not that we can blame him. He lives with and provides the only financial support for his mother and five sisters (the most domineering and critical of his siblings is portrayed by the chameleonic Andrea Riseborough). Can’t blame the guy for zoning out in his own bubble.

But then the family hires Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as governess for the youngest sisters, and Louis is smitten.  In her own way Emily is an outsider, too. They’re made for each other and ere long have moved to a storybook cottage in the countryside. (Erik Wilson’s astounding cinematography is like a pastel-dominated, hand-colored Daguerrotype and employs a square frame format; it’s sort of like watching a magic lantern show from that period.)

The couple adopt a kitten found mewling in a downpour. They take in this creature and treat it both as a child and as an equal.  

Jeeze…what a happy little family.

Except after only a few blissful years Emily sickens, leaving a distraught Louis once again in the demanding arms of his womenfolk.

There’s a bit of good news…the cat portraits he executed for the ailing Emily have morphed into a full-time avocation.  Suddenly he’s wildly popular.  (Not that this materially helped the Wains…Louis — always more an impetuous enthusiast than a calculating businessman —neglected to copyright any of his illustrations and now they’re being exploited while he receives not a penny.)

As it follows Louis’ long life (he died in a mental hospital at age 78) the film alternates between passages of enchanting oddness and moments of crushing sadness. This repetitive first-you’re-up-then-you’re down pattern might be offputting if not for Cumberbatch’s weirdly compelling performance.

In fact, one is tempted to declare Louis Wain the character Cumberbatch was born to play.   With his big, childlike noggin and ability to perfectly project the sense of a man caught up in private reveries, Cumberbatch embodies this oddball in ways that no conventionally handsome actor could.

There are moments here when the actor moves the viewer to tears; at the same time there’s an almost frightening clinical approach to the character.  After watching this performance you’ll understand why Wain fans still argue over whether he was truly schizophrenic (as he was diagnosed at the time) or instead occupyied his own special niche on the spectrum.

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” has been sumptuously mounted as it follow its subject from the 1880s to the eve of World War II, and the keen-eyed viewer will spot some sly guest appearances by notables like Taika Waititi and singer Nick Cage. The great Olivia Colman provides the slightly wry narration.

| Robert W. Butler

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