Louis Wain was one of the most celebrated illustrators of the 1800 and early 1900s. His cat illustrations captured the public mood, though they were grounded in the tragedy of the death of his wife Emily. That this all set against a very unconventional (for the time) relationship and health issues.

Narrated by Oliva Colman we are taken through Louis’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) life from his early days surrounded with his mother and sisters. The arrival of governess Emily (Claire Foy), their marriage and the development of his illustrations with the support of Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) the owner of the Illustrated London News.

Falling in love and marrying Emily caused tension within the family and the society they associated with shunned them as a result. Society’s attitude seemed to have little effect on Louis who was deeply in love with Emily. Her illness came as a blow though if anything can be taken from something so tragic is that Louis, already passionate about cats, began to see their cat Peter in a different light which was reflected in his work and became a source of comfort.

Emily’s death brought him back to his family and he continued to illustrate. He was successful but his lack of business sense (he didn’t copyright his drawings) meant he had continuous money problems. This and family bereavements started to take their toll on Louis, resulting in him being referred to a mental asylum where a fortuitous encounter would enhance his life.

It’s the sort of genius with an unconventional life that is the meat and bones of these types of bio-pics and all credit to director Will Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson for researching Wain’s life. In structure the film is fairly conventional, the opening sequence is an introductory collage of life at home with Louis his mother and four sisters, that from here takes the viewer through his life.

There are wonderful performances from Foy and Cumberbatch who are in love though never cloying and with his assertive sister Caroline played by Andrea Riseborough there’s a balance there should if look as if it was going to steer that way. Similarly from Toby Jones who while a great supporter of Wain is a businessman with no difficulty making decisions that would affect Louis.

Nevertheless there are great directorial flourishes that may well irritate or delight, such as the fantasy of the cats and Wain’s imagination. These are beautiful, as is the film overall, though they teeter on whimsy, and that is a problem. And to be fair probably unavoidable when trying to get into the mind of a genius and then up on to the screen attempting to enhance already fabulous illustrations that are part and parcel of the story and feature heavily in the film.

Having said that there’s no shirking the attitudes to life and death at the time and Colman’s narration is matter of fact when dealing with the Wain’s sectioning and the deaths in the family, the latter seen as inevitable bearing in mind the shorter life expectancy of the times.

The film does sag a little when Wain’s family disappear when it concentrates on Louis and Emily, reappearing later on to share his life moving into a house together. Despite the support and love he had it is inescapable that Wain never managed to grieve properly for the death of Emily piling ever more pressure on himself. These latter stages are darker than previous but even here there’s still room for light and love.