Benedict Cumberbatch shows his astonishing versatility with this compelling, moving portrait of the deeply-troubled artist Louis Wain, the man whose work helped popularise cats and turn them into the domestic pets we all know and love today.
His work was sensationally popular when he broke through in the late 1800s; the irony was that the more he suffered, the more his work soared.
Cumberbatch gives us a man who is eccentric and vulnerable, a man who, particularly after the early death of his beloved wife, retreats increasingly into his own world; a world governed by an electricity which he tries to harness and inhabited by cats who will eventually walk on two legs and turn blue, he believed.
Wain was destined to spend long years in psychiatric hospitals – and even became a cause celebre when H G Wells, no less, joined the campaign, in Wain’s later years, to fund him a better level of care and remove him from the paupers’ asylum into which he had drifted.
Olivia Colman’s narration is a little irritating and takes a little getting used to, but in the context of the film as a whole, it’s the perfect way to cover all the years the movie takes in, from Wain’s younger years as an illustrator trying to provide for his family of five sisters through to his old age of relative contentment surrounded by his increasingly idiosyncratic art.
Key to it all is Emily Richardson (beautifully played by Claire Foy), the governess brought in to look after his younger sisters. When Wain discovers her sitting in a cupboard the better to focus on Shakespeare, he discovers a kindred spirit – someone who, like him, really doesn’t live within the normal confines of existence.
Creating their very own mini scandal (she being so much lower in class), they decide to marry – and their relationship, so tenderly portrayed, is one of the film’s great delights. Sadly, it wasn’t a relationship to last. Emily is stricken with breast cancer, and it’s only a matter of time.
But they find solace in a cat and in the cats Wain starts drawing, and somehow his art sees him through her death – and opens up huge fame for Wain in the process.
Wain’s gaggle of variously ungracious sisters occasionally don’t ring particularly true, though given this is “a true” story, we must assume that they are.
But Foy’s performance is a real gem. She makes you believe perfectly that Emily is exactly what Wain needed – which in turn makes the depth of his grief completely explicable. And it is harrowingly portrayed by Cumberbatch, an actor absolutely at the top of his game.
His Wain is intense, vulnerable and likeable: a man for whom all the normal responses (such as the delight you’d expect at being offered a plum job) are completely alien and yet a man who easily elicits our sympathy. He is restless, distracted and otherworldly, and yet you feel for him every step of the way through a life which brought him adulation which meant nothing to him and took away the wife who meant everything. A film of real substance.