Cumberbatch delivers a portrait of a troubled artist in 'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain'

AHEAD OF HIS TIME: Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain." Jaap Buitendijk/Amazon Studios

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a twitchy, high-strung portrayal of the protagonist in "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain," a film about the titular artist, who popularized kitschy cat pictures in late-Victorian London. Suffused with an occasionally awkward combination of whimsy and sadness, Will Sharpe's movie not only seeks to tell the story of how Wain happened to create a pop culture fad that would last into meme-times, but wants to get the audience inside his head. If that effort falters – if "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" begins to sag under its ambitions and the sheerover-muchness of Wain's aesthetic and imagination – it's still a diverting biography of an artist otherwise lost to history.

In late 1880s England, Wain is making a living as an illustrator and living at home with his mother and five sisters when the household is joined by a governess named Emily Richardson (Claire Foy). Soon, the diffident Louis realizes that in the similarly neuro-atypical Emily, he has met his match. Despite the fact that she's "positively geriatric" by the standards of the time (as the film's narrator, Olivia Colman, helpfully explains), the two are married, their bliss only heightened by their adoption of a waterlogged black-and-white kitten they name Peter.

This is where the sadness comes in, a melancholy and sense of inconsolable loss that Wain compulsively channels through the creation of cat drawings – realistic, then anthropomorphic and finally surreal, and his mental health begins to decline. His humanlike cats prove to be hits with the wider public, who gobble up his illustrations by way of greeting cards, newspaper comics and children's books. He's clearly a man ahead of his time, not only anticipating YouTube and LOLcats, but evincing an interest in electricity that goes from practical to metaphysical.

Sharpe goes to every length necessary to make sure viewers understand Wain's genius, spelling out what could have been meaningful subtext, staging lurid fantasy sequences when he endures one of his several breakdowns and placing him in idealized settings that are so prettified they resemble a latter-day Thomas Kinkade painting. ("The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" benefits from a fabulously layered production design by Suzie Davies.)

Struggling to keep up

The performances are similarly big, especially Andrea Riseborough as Wain's domineering sister Caroline. Cumberbatch and Foy manage to find purchase as two misfits in love, alternately rabbity and wide-eyed in a private world of shyness and mutual understanding. As Wain's pieces become more abstract (his later work is astonishingly psychedelic), the movie struggles to keep up, with the depictions of his hallucinations and encroaching distress feeling increasingly tasteless.

"The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" tells its story with sympathy, but too many quirks and try-hard flourishes. In the welter and spin of tics, voice-overs, set pieces, images, flashbacks and dream states, the man himself gets as lost as a kitten in the rain.

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