Richard Ayoade

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

Soul

04/01/21

Disney+

The release of a new Pixar movie is generally a cause for some celebration, even when it can’t be viewed in its proper home, a giant cinema screen. This latest release, directed and co-written by Pete Docter, is yet another marriage between extraordinary animation and heartwarming storyline. If Soul doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of Coco or Up, it nonetheless rarely puts a foot wrong and even manages the seemingly impossible, by making me enjoy its jazz-heavy score.

This is the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged jazz pianist, still dreaming of making it big but hedging his bets by teaching high schoolers some basic musicianship. There’s an enduring cinematic trope that loves to depict teaching as a hopeless last resort for the not-quite-talented-enough, but Soul cleverly avoids making that mistake. A scene where Joe is enraptured by the improvisational skills of Connie (Cora Champommier) cleverly shows the true importance and rewards of being an inspirational teacher.

Joe’s shot at the big time finally comes out of nowhere, when a former student puts him forward as a potential band member to play alongside ace saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s over the moon – this is the break he’s been waiting for – and, when he manages to audition successfully, he’s understandably elated. He dances jubilantly out onto the street, falls through an open manhole and er… dies.

Before we can even say “Oops!” he’s in The Great Before, a staging post for The Great Beyond, where he encounters soul counsellors (all called Jerry), tasked with the tricky job of preparing unborn souls for life. Mistaken for just such a counsellor, Joe is assigned reluctant soul number ’22’ (Tina Fey) and, when he discovers that she is the possessor of a free pass back to earth, he spots an opportunity to make it to that gig he’s been looking forward to. But, en route back to life, a disastrous mix-up occurs…

A key section of Soul really puts me in mind of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, and I’m still uncertain whether it’s a deliberate homage or just a big coincidence. It probably doesn’t matter. What this film does really efficiently is to mine plenty of genuine laughs from some fairly unpromising material. You can probably number on one hand the cartoons that feature a dead person in the lead role, but this manages to find the funnies in the premise and that’s its strongest suit.

As ever, with Pixar, it’s the characterisations that keep me hooked and there’s the added bonus of several maddeningly familiar voices that have me reaching for IMDb to confirm who’s who – is that Richard Ayoade? It is! And could that be… Graham Norton? Yes it could! The animation style runs from an ultra-realistic approach for the sections set in New York to freeform 2D creations for cosmic events. This makes for an intriguing contrast as the story initially cuts back and forth between two worlds, before the different styles begin to seep into each other.

And, if the film’s ultimate ‘message’ nudges perilously close to fridge-magnet territory, well, it’s nonetheless a heartening one, that surely only a hardened curmudgeon could disagree with.

Then there’s that vibrant soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, which certainly lives up to the film’s title. Like I said, this may not the best Pixar ever, but it ain’t half bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Souvenir

06/01/20

Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s latest feature is as much a study of film-making as it is an intimate portrayal of a flawed relationship. Its the early 1980s and wannabe film-maker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to find her voice. She’s in her mid-twenties, and keen to explore a story that will take her out of her ‘bubble.’ And it is quite a rarefied bubble, with a Knightsbridge flat and a place at film school all funded by her parents, a set of privileges that both advantage her (giving her the space and opportunity to pursue her dreams) and infantilise her (‘Can I borrow some more money, Mummy? No, I promise, I’m not being extravagant…’). Julie is keenly aware that hers is a narrow worldview, but soon realises that appropriating someone else’s experiences isn’t going to work. And, when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), it soon becomes apparent that even she is not impervious to drama and to strife.

Julie lacks confidence, and Anthony has lots of it. He’s ebullient, arrogant, charming and dismissive. He’s a bit older than her, works for the foreign office (or so he says), and has a taste for the finer things in life. Julie is swept off her feet but, at a dinner party, Anthony’s friend, Patrick (Richard Ayoade), reveals a disturbing secret. As time goes on, Anthony’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and manipulative, and Julie’s fragile sense of self takes a real battering.

It’s beautifully acted by all involved, although – given the film’s preoccupation with privilege – it’s a little concerning to see the emergence of another acting dynasty, with Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother (Tilda Swinton) playing her fictional counterpart with consummate skill. Swinton Byrne has certainly inherited the family talent and is mesmerising on screen, but I’m still not sure I like a world where directors’ godchildren are cast as leads in their films. It speaks too loudly of closed doors.

Still, that aside, this is a clever, thought-provoking film. It moves slowly and leaves gaps, as much revealed by what is not said as by what is. Julie is often rendered mute by Anthony’s outbursts; her parents are models of politeness and restraint. But the relationships are vivid nevertheless, and Julie’s core determination to create something of her own shines through, despite her ongoing ordeal.

Burke is especially interesting as Anthony, ensuring we empathise with him even as we despise his actions. As he gradually exerts more and more control over Julie’s life, we begin to will her to break free from his clutches, but she seems incapable of shrugging off his malignant influence. Meanwhile, the era and lifestyle against which this toxic relationship plays out are evocatively portrayed, the cinematography’s washed out tones a subtle reminder of the historical setting.

This exquisite slow burner of a film is, most definitely, one to watch.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield