Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
United Kingdom, 2021. Amazon Studios, Film 4, Shoebox Films, StudioCanal, SunnyMarch. Story by Simon Stephenson, Screenplay by Simon Stephenson, Will Sharpe. Cinematography by Erik Wilson. Produced by Adam Ackland, Ed Clarke, Leah Clarke, Guy Heeley. Music by Arthur Sharpe. Production Design by Suzie Davies. Costume Design by Michael O’Connor. Film Editing by Selina MacArthur.
Once an artist’s body of work is available for public consumption, it takes on a life of its own, as was the case for Louis Wain and the years of drawings and paintings of cats that he produced for much of his career, making him a sensation at the end of the 19th century and popularizing furry felines as domestic pets. As often happens with creative minds whose work has had a great deal of effect on popular culture, the modern love of origin stories demands that we learn what was behind this impressive oeuvre, what inspired it and what were the circumstances under which this work came about? Nothing particularly interesting, as it turns out, when compared with the likes of Tolkien or Sigfried Sassoon (or, further back, Frida Kahlo or Jackson Pollock), as director Will Sharpe has put together a pleasingly photographed but soulless biopic that brings up a number of potent themes and never explores any of them, never able to decide which one he wants to make his movie about: love? The oppression of material needs in opposition to creative drive? The sociological result of the changing roles that pets have played in our lives? At least it is performed with delighted esprit by the cast of characters, beginning when Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses his father and is obliged to financially support his mother and brood of perpetually unmarried sisters, the eldest of them a relentless scold with the face of an exasperated carp played by Andrea Riseborough, who never stops reminding him that there are debts to be paid. Wain’s artistry is practically a divine gift, he can draw a lifelike sketch of someone in minutes just while sitting across the dining table from them, and puts this use to by gaining employment as the news illustrator for a significant but underpaying London periodical run by Toby Jones.
The impractical and offbeat artist then falls in love with his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), and they marry, taking up life in the country to get away from societal disapproval of their unequal match (Wain, despite his financial troubles, is actually a gentleman and a good marriage was the family’s one hope of getting their heads above water). When their marital bliss is short-lived thanks to terminal illness, Wain, in his grief, takes refuge in the one thing he and his wife shared before her passing, an adorable foundling cat named Peter who inspires him to focus his artistic talents on celebrating the wonderful, humorous charisma of these critters, which he does so potently that soon all of England (and eventually the world) has its eyes on his illustrations; unfortunately his business acumen never improves, and his money troubles never end.
Sharpe’s insistence on making everything as quirky and cute as possible, right down to the backgrounds turning into watercolours, eventually becomes wearisome the more he uses it to replace actual substance, which the film never has. Any time the story pushes the director towards deciding on the story’s spine, he simply cuts to a moment of either cute or disturbing quirkiness (subtitled cat dialogue, Wain sleepwalks in his nightmares and pees himself). The almost mystical fascination with the application of electricity into daily Victorian life in Wain’s imaginative theories is something the title hints at but that the screenplay is terrified we’ll realize it doesn’t understand, instead enlisting the voice of Olivia Colman to provide narration that explains things that the plot is obscuring or losing touch with. If anything can be said to elevate this mundane exploration of an artist whose art is, quite frankly, not that important, it’s that Foy and Cumberbatch do generate some genuinely sympathetic chemistry and their love affair is a cherishable centre to an experience that provokes indifference.
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021