Hayley Squires

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

12/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

This eccentric biopic of Edwardian illustrator Louis Wain is a curious kettle of cat litter, a story so weird it can only be true. It’s centred around an impressive performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and features such a wealth of talent in the supporting roles that I can’t help feeling that the actor (also executive producer on this) must have called in some favours from his friends.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain at various points in his life, from bumbling, hyperactive youngster to grey and mentally frail in his final years. Cumberbatch manages to convince at just about every point of the journey. When we first meet Wain, he’s a freelance illustrator, who, at the age of twenty, is struggling to provide for the upkeep of his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and his five sisters, none of whom seem to have any prospect of marriage.

However, the family budget does stretch to paying for a governess to teach the younger girls and she’s Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), who, despite being ten years older than Louis, soon has him hanging on her every word in open-mouthed adoration, much to the disgust of his sour-faced older sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough).

It isn’t long before Louis and Emily have married and moved to a picturesque cottage in the countryside. But then Emily receives some devastating news about her health – and moments later, the couple discover an abandoned kitten wandering in their garden, whom they promptly christen Peter. The cat is to have a profound effect on Wain’s career…

The film’s early stretches have a charmingly ramshackle quality, and I’m initially prepared to put aside my reservations about the screenplay by Will Sharpe and Simon Stephenson, which fails to give actors of the quality of Riseborough enough to do. Other luminaries can be missed in the blink of an eye. Hayley Squires, Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett… they flit across the screen like phantoms with barely a line of dialogue between them.

When Wain’s patron, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), assigns him a double-page spread in The Illustrated London News to be filled with images of ‘comical cats,’ the artist’s career takes an unexpected leap skywards, but the film fails to soar in the same manner. It becomes bogged down in Wain’s inescapable problems, including his increasingly desperate struggles with schizophrenia and his inability to profit from his own artistic endeavours. (Message to all aspiring illustrators: ensure you copyright your work before you put it in the public domain. You’re welcome.)

From this point, the story fails to maintain a consistent tone and Wain’s bizarre ‘electrical’ theories are never explained clearly enough for us to understand either what they are or why they are considered important enough to include in the title. In its final stretches the film becomes more and more surreal, with landscapes turning into paintings and people turning into cats, while a theremin whines mournfully on the soundtrack. Having Nick Cave appear as the author H.G. Wells seems a step too bizarre and makes me wonder if this is supposed to be one of the hallucinations that Wain suffered towards the end of his life. Whatever it means, it feels like a misstep.

So, all plaudits to Cumberbatch for yet another in his dazzling collection of character studies. It’s quite an about-turn after the toxic masculinity of The Power of the Dog. Perhaps Charms of the Cat would have been a more appropriate title?

And, as for the film that contains said performance, it’s muddled and a bit of a disappointment.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

In the Earth

24/06/21

The Cameo Cinema

Ben Wheatley is an enigma. Undeniably prolific, he’s also versatile. Unlike most directors, who find an approach they’re happy with and stick pretty closely to it, Wheatley flits happily from genre to genre with no apparent game plan. Indeed, recent rumours that he’s signed on to helm the sequel to Jason Statham’s big budget creature-feature, The Meg, sound implausible enough to be true. But of all his releases, only a couple of them (Sightseers and High-Rise) stand up as true successes. The rest feel like missed opportunities and his much-lauded shoot-’em-up, Free Fire, is one of the few times I’ve been in a cinema and longed for a fast-forward button.

In the Earth sees him returning to the kind of folk-horror elements he mined so effectively in A Field in England, although this time he’s opted for a contemporary setting. The cities of the world are suffering through a crippling pandemic (sound familiar?) and scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a remote research facility in a forest on the outskirts of Bristol. He’s looking for his former colleague, Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), and is informed that she is conducting some ‘crop research’ in deep forest, several days’ walk from there. He’s assigned forest ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia), as his guide and the two of them set off into the woods.

But one night, they are attacked by unknown assailants and robbed of their footwear. Shortly thereafter, Martin gashes his foot badly, something we’ve been kind of expecting because of a pointed pre-credits sequence. Then the two of them bump into mysterious loner, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who takes them to his encampment and performs a bit of impromptu – and extremely grisly – surgery on the damaged foot. Martin is soon to discover that Zach is not the man to entrust his foot – or indeed, any other part of his anatomy – to. Zach is, to put it mildly, bananas, a man who believes that there are ancient spirits in this part of the forest, ones that are taking advantage of the pandemic to exert their power and influence over humanity… and then things start to get really weird.

In the Earth sets out its stall effectively enough and, though it takes a while to build up a head of steam, it boasts performances – especially Shearsmith’s – that are accomplished enough to make me suspend my disbelief over the various loopy shenanigans unfolding under the ancient oaks. Mind you, Martin is so hapless he may as well have the word VICTIM tattooed on his forehead. And why exactly is he there in the first place? A full day after viewing the film, I’m still not sure. And herein lies the main problem with this film. It’s nebulous to the point of being infuriating.

A local legend about a woodland deity called Parnag Fegg is introduced early on, but is never effectively followed up and, instead, we are offered fleeting glimpses of earlier happenings, often flung at us in the midst of psychedelic sequences, when a bunch of fungi start throwing out hallucinatory spores. The first of these passages is impressive, but I could have done without the second one, which just feels like more of the same and, once again, has me thinking wistfully about a fast-forward function. More damningly, for a horror film, apart from a couple of wince-inducing injury details, this doesn’t feel remotely scary.

In the end, I realise that I don’t really care what happens to any of the characters, mostly because I haven’t learned anything about them. File this one under ‘Y’ for ‘Yet another missed opportunity.’

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

I, Daniel Blake

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21/10/16

If everything had gone to plan, this film wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Ken Loach’s previous movie, Jimmy’s Hall, was intended to be his swan song. And though that was a decent enough film, it was hardly up there with his finest work.But clearly, a look around ‘Benefits Britain’  – as engendered by the Tory party’s heartless policies – has stirred the veteran director out of retirement. I, Daniel Blake is not so much a film as a protracted howl of anger – and it’s one of the finest polemics I’ve seen on the cinema screen.

Dan (stand-up comedian, Dave Johns) is a carpenter who has recently suffered a serious heart attack. Told by his doctor that he’s not fit to go back to work, he signs on, but soon discovers that  the ‘decision-maker’ has deemed him ‘fit for work.’ Of course, he has no income, so if he wants money, he’ll have to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance. This obliges him to trudge around Newcastle looking for jobs that he isn’t fit enough to accept even in the unlikely event that he gets them. During one trip to the Job Centre, he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires) a young single mother with two kids to look after. She’s recently been relocated from London to Newcastle and is desperately trying to find work. Dan befriends her, and becomes a kind of surrogate grandfather to the two children.

All the familiar Loach tropes are here – non actors, giving every scene a shot of verité, semi-improvised dialogue and a story that meanders from incident to incident with little in the way of a traditional story arc. But what there is in abundance is a sense of simmering anger, an incomprehension that life in this green and pleasant land could have come to this sorry state of affairs. There are scenes here that would move the most implacable viewer to tears (a scene set in a food bank is particularly affecting). If this should prove to be Loach’s final film, it’s a hell of a leaving card.

This should be required viewing for every politician in the land.

5 stars

Philip Caveney