What is it about The Cinematic Life of Benedict Cumberbatch? Why must he always play lovable eccentric inventor/artists? His signature role for the masses may now be the sorcerer Dr Strange in Marvel movies, but previously he was a typically eccentric Sherlock Holmes. From Alan Turing, to Julian Assange to Thomas Edison, if there’s a role that calls for an offbeat, gangly actor, there’s no need for auditions; just send for Cumberbatch. Yet Cumberbatch is an accomplished stage actor, and I‘ve admired his Hamlet and Frankenstein, and he was even better in the BBC’s Ford Madox Ford drama Parade’s End, but his screen persona is coming up the same flavour every time and it’s beginning to grate
In Will Sharpe’s tragi-comedy, Cumberbatch plays Louis Wain, a lovable 19th century eccentric who can’t decide if he wants to write plays or operas; he’s well-to-do enough to get advice from Sir Henry Wood (Richard Ayoade). With a large household to manage, Wain takes on some help in the form of Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) who he immediately falls for. Richardson feels the same, and his passion for her leads to the couple adopting a cat as a pet, launching Wain into a career of drawing cute cats, for that is indeed what this biography is about.
Yet Louis Wain’s life isn’t cute, so vague spoilers apply; poor Emily dies at the 50 minute mark, leaving him distraught. Wain makes no money due to his ignorance of copyright law, his sister is sectioned for mental health issues, then Wain hits his head getting off a bus and falls into a coma. It might be comical in the right hands, but tragic-comedy is hard and Sharpe doesn’t seem to know what he wants us to feel about Wain’s story. Cumberbatch is personable, as always, and the aging make-up is good for once, but it’s hard to discern what the point of this oddball drama is; novelty seems to be the driving force.
To this end there are cameos to pass the time; Nick Cave as HG Wells, Taika Waititi as a newspaper editor, Julian Barratt as a doctor, but the average length of their appearances must be 30 seconds each. There’s also trippy cat visuals, and a nice running gag in which every cat in the film gets subtitles to explain what they’re saying, which isn’t much. Such quirky touches suggest a more creative biopic might have made something interesting of Wain’s life, but for now, this version of Louis Wain’s story should be an urgent matter for consideration at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Benedict Cumberbatch Endlessly playing Eccentric Inventors.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is in UK cinemas now (Jan 2022)