Will Sharpe

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

Giri/Haji

15/04/20

Netflix

The lockdown continues and we’re scratching around for new sources of entertainment. We don’t usually review television series, but a vague tip-off via Facebook alerts us to this strange hybrid, a compelling blend of Tokyo/London crime-thriller/character drama. It failed to connect with large audiences on its initial release, but is now available to watch on Netflix.

Maybe the title doesn’t help. Giri/Haji (which translates as the dull-sounding Duty/Shame) also boasts subtitles for much of its content and, as we all know, that can be enough to frighten off large sections of the viewing public. But here’s the rub. Giri/Haji is one of the best TV series we’ve seen in a very long time, and we’re soon hooked, bingeing on all eight episodes in just a few days.

The action begins in Tokyo, where world-weary Detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is horrified to learn that a recent Yakuza-style killing in London may have been perpetrated by his younger brother, Yuto (Yōsuke Kubozuka), missing-presumed-dead after some misadventures in his home city. The murder victim is the nephew of a powerful Yakuza leader and the ensuing fallout threatens to cause a war between the different factions of Tokyo’s organised crime network.

Kenzo is dispatched to London to find his brother, but soon falls into the orbit of lonely detective, Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly McDonald), who is ostracised from her colleagues. Then Kenzo’s troubled teenage daughter, Taki (Aoi Okuyama), follows him to London and… you know what? It’s pointless to say much more about the plot because it’s very complicated and will probably put off as many people as it entices. But let me assure you, over eight episodes, everything ties together beautifully.

What Giri/Haji has to offer in abundance is a whole bunch of surprises, incidents you really won’t see coming. Writer Joe Barton clearly delights in pulling the rug from under his viewers’ feet, something he does with considerable skill. You thought the details on a  character were a bit sketchy? Well, hang on, in a later episode, there’ll be a deep dive that will take you back for a more in-depth look at him/her. You thought you had that other character well and truly nailed? Think again!

The other unexpected delight is how funny much of this is. Take Soho-based rent boy, Rodney (Will Sharpe), for instance, who can’t seem to open his mouth without unleashing an onslaught of invective-littered hilarity. Likewise, hardened criminal Abbot (Charlie Creed Miles) somehow manages to generate genuine threat whilst effortlessly dispensing corking one-liners. Even minor characters, people we only see once, for goodness sake, are gifted with fabulous lines of dialogue. And don’t go thinking that this is just a chuckle-fest, because the next thing you know, a Yakuza is being made to chop off one of his own fingers in unflinching detail.

There’s much more to commend this series: the animated introductions, the clever allusions to the way in which seemingly unconnected events can impact on each other, even when they happen thousands of miles apart and, in the final episode, a high action shoot-out that eerily metamorphoses into a Frantic Assembly-style dance number without pausing to take a breath. It’s a dangerous, audacious gambit that probably shouldn’t work – but absolutely does, big time.

For whatever reason it first failed to find its audience, Giri/Haji is right there, right now, ready to be explored at the touch of a button. If you’re too late for iPlayer, it will be on Netflix from Friday. Let’s face it, in the current situation, we can’t really argue that we haven’t got time…can we?

5 stars

Philip Caveney