Victorian cat cartoonist Louis Wain’s biopic is a trippy tale of two halves
The Electric Life of Louis Wain Four Stars opens January 1; 12A certificate
Someone once said that the internet is made of cats, and images and clips of cute moggies doing funny things make up the lion’s share of everyday traffic.
We’ll probably never know, but it might seem like we can’t get enough of these slightly silly, selfish, wildlife-ravaging, but undeniably stylish pets. The humble feline is having a cultural moment thanks to the thrift store rabbit hole available online.
So how exactly did the cat transform from a purring nocturnal killer who keeps rodents in check to a comedic icon of household entertainment?
Having witnessed this quirky Louis Wain biopic, I like the idea that the Victorian illustrator who depicted cats playing game, playing pool, having tea, etc. had a small part in it all.
As Wain’s career progressed, he is thought to have suffered from mental episodes, and the noticeably mood-altering register his cat pictures took on in his later years has been attributed to this. Will Sharpe’s film doesn’t beat around the bush in its depiction of these things.
Behind the vibrant, saucer-eyed felines that dripped from Wain’s paintbrush in his later years lurked the cogs of a restless mind, and the clash of those two beats – kindness and madness – is the currency of the film as a whole, perhaps not always successfully.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular polymath we meet in Victorian London with pencils and sketchbooks as a newspaper illustrator.
With the advent of the camera yet to come, hand-drawn pictures are the only spectacle in town, but despite his prodigious talent and drive, Louis earns a meager income to support his mother and five sisters. . Even when he lands a job and praise from editor William Ingram (Toby Jones), it doesn’t translate to increased finances.
Louis is portrayed as something of a silly scholar, good at his craft, avidly pursuing various sciences and sports, but virtually ignorant of the day-to-day realities of life and, by extension, love.
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A crash course in the latter appears with the arrival of Emily (Claire Foy), a tough young governess hired to tutor the youngest of Louis’s sisters. Older sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) is far from thrilled that he is pairing up with a commoner, but he won’t be bothered and the pair retire to a rural cottage to begin married life together.
As they set off, tragedy befalls the couple in love, cutting the film in two and triggering a downward meander in the narrative. Before that happens, however, a kitten appears in their garden, whom they name Peter.
The black and white cat eventually becomes deeply ingrained and fundamental to their idyllic cottage existence, to the point that Louis becomes obsessed with the species as a whole and adopts them as his dominant artistic vehicle.
Happy-sad is probably how you would describe the tone of Sharpe’s film. It kicks off with a dotted, gyroscopic rhythm reminiscent of Armando Iannucci’s brilliant foray into Charles Dickens’ novel. David Copperfield.
As Louis, Cumberbatch bustles about as the most charming and eccentric English eccentric we’ve ever met. The staging with the five sisters, all in varying shapes and moods, also feels like comedic affectation.
The shift to melodrama in the final act (interrupted only by moments of extremely intense hallucinatory animation – kaleidoscopic cats, that sort of thing) is at odds with the freewheeling fun we encountered at the start.
Wain’s story is definitely not happy and maybe no amount of cute cartoons can change that. Sharpe, who is co-writing here with Simon Stephenson, has every right to say it as it is, but the early chapters by comparison are very heavy with untethered fantasy for a story of such doom.
Another part of the weirdness of The Electric Life of Louis Wain is what makes it so memorable. Cinematographer Erik Wilson amps up the blurry colors so it sometimes looks like a period saga trapped in a Woodstock fever dream.
Truly unmissable and irresistible is the leader of the project. Cumberbatch is guaranteed an Oscar nod for The power of the dogand this release is very much part of a purple stain giving its best work yet.
If the nominations instead came for her turn here (or indeed co-star Claire Foy’s), there really couldn’t be any argument.
The Matrix Resurrections
In cinemas; 15A certificate
A late contender for the messiest blockbuster of 2021, The Matrix Resurrections takes everything you loved about the game-changing 1999 original and spits it in the face. Honestly, it’s like director Lana Wachowski is going out of her way to make sure this fourth chapter in the franchise – the first since 2003 – leaves us in awe.
How else do you explain the super-meta storyline, in which Thomas Anderson (a returning Keanu Reeves) is revealed to have spent the middle years as an anxious video game designer in San Francisco? Yes, according to this sequel, the Matrix movies weren’t movies at all, but rather games created by Mr. Anderson. If that’s not enough to make you throw rotten fruit on screen, its bosses want a sequel.
Oh, and strange happenings in San Francisco have the former Neo questioning his reality. Can you see where this leads?
Clumsily plotted and clumsily directed, this clunky and surprisingly dated follow-up has no idea what it’s all about. Reeves and his co-star Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity) are in for a fabulous nick, and they’re trying really, really hard. Alas, this aggressively stupid film should never have been made.
Be the Ricardos
Amazon Prime Video: Cert 16
How do you know you’re watching an Aaron Sorkin movie? Easy: You’ll hear it in the writing. For his last lap, Sorkin – the man behind The west wing and Oscar nominee last year, The Chicago 7 Trial – doubles down on some of its worst habits, with a loaded and oddly rambling portrayal of American TV icon Lucille Ball.
The configuration of the week in life is good. We are in 1952, i love lucy is the most-watched show in America and Ball (Nicole Kidman) is in a bit of a pickle. First, she was accused of being a communist (her bosses won’t like that). Second, she is pregnant (as well). Third, she believes her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is having an affair. That’s a lot for anyone, but she and her team have a game-changing sitcom.
Ripe material for a strong and insightful biopic, but Being the Ricardos is anything but and this loud, crushed film talks a lot, but rarely says anything interesting. An excessive score does not help much. Kidman and his supporting cast are hard at work, but Sorkin can’t decide whether he wants to make a meaty drama or a flagship soap opera. He stumbles with both.
Lola and the sea
IF I; Certification 15
It should have been something special. A flawed and choppy road movie that never quite takes off, Lola and the sea enjoys a star turn from Belgian transgender actor Mya Bollaers.
A cold and contrived storyline, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Bollaers is Lola, an 18-year-old trans woman living in a foster home. Lola saved up for gender reassignment surgery, her only financial support coming from her sick mother. After mom’s death, Lola visits her father, Philippe (Benoît Magimel), an angry and bitter man who refuses to accept his daughter’s new identity.
When Philippe announces his plan to take a trip to the Belgian coast to scatter his wife’s ashes, Lola jumps into the back of his car and orders him to drive. You can probably guess what happens next.
Writer/director Laurent Micheli presents us with a well-intentioned and beautifully acted set-up. Alas, it’s frustrating and surprisingly superficial work – and there isn’t enough of it. In 90 minutes, Lola et la mer is in such a hurry that it often gives priority to clichés and sentimentality over a rich and exploratory narration. Pity.