TORONTO — If you’ve ever found yourself mindlessly scrolling through cat pictures on Instagram at 4 a.m., you have this man to thank (or resent) for it: Louis Wain.
Never heard of him? The Victorian Era British artist made psychedelic paintings that gave felines colorful, human personalities, and they are credited with promoting kitties from hunters to beloved house pets.
Wain is played by Benedict Cumberbatch — who’s turning into the King of Film Fests — in the whimsical dramedy “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday. The movie drops on Amazon next month.
“He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world,” author H.G. Wells said of Wain in 1925. Similarly, director Will Sharpe with his eccentric new film has created a Wain style, a Wain society, a Wain world — a k a one that’s weird and wonderful.
The famed painter, narrator Olivia Colman tells us, started out as a “poly-hobbyist”: he composed a failed opera, he was an unsuccessful teacher, took boxing lessons and tried his hands at inventing, all to support his five spinster sisters.
His eldest sibling, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), thinks her brother is real Wain in the ass because he mismanages money and purposefully skips more lucrative pursuits, such as being an illustrator for the local newspaper, to enjoy his passions.
Riseborough, by the way, could get laughs on a packed subway train during rush hour. Simon Stephenson’s script is funny on its own terms, but the actress turns up-tight, purse-lipped, silent moments into off-the-charts hilarity.
Caroline demands Louis hire a governess to teach the girls, and so Emily (Claire Foy) moves in upstairs. An amiable outcast like Louis, the two begin a secretive romance and eventually marry. One day, the couple rescues a shivering kitten during a rain storm and name him Peter, and thus Wain’s cat era begins.
Sharpe’s brigh and bouncy style brings to mind what Armando Iannucci did with “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” The century-old story feels fresh. His storytelling is cheerful and irreverent, but done with great respect. As Wain’s circumstances become dreary (mental illness, destitution), the film’s positivity makes us believe he can escape it all.
So does Cumberbatch. Wain is the sort of wacko role the actor excels at: quick, out-of-the-box and, eventually, physically transformative. What stretches him and what we don’t see very often, however, is his very honest love for Emily. The actor and Foy light an instant flame that never goes out.
Foy, I think, needed a project like “Louis Wain” and a director like Sharpe. She is a riot here and is having a helluva lot more fun than she did as an isolated Queen Elizabeth II on “The Crown,” or as Neil Armstrong’s distraught wife in “First Man,” or, yikes, as Anne Boleyn.
Cumberbatch, meanwhile, is also onscreen in Toronto as the opposite of Wain as a mean, macho rancher in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” But it’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” that’s a fancy feast.
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