Electrical Life of Louis Wain, The (United Kingdom, 2021)October 20, 2021
Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch), a product of late 19th Century England, drew pictures of cats. All sorts of cats – big cats, small cats, wild cats, tame cats. Most were anthropomorphized, although some more than others. Wain’s cat drawings were all the rage for a while and, because he never filed for a copyright, there were everywhere. But, like any fad, they faded away and all that remained was a man who was once famous but who hadn’t profited from his fame and was therefore left bereft and destitute, coping with a mental illness that splintered his reality.
Taken at face value, Louis Wain’s life was the stuff of tragedy but filmmaker Will Sharpe, working from a screenplay written by Simon Stephenson, wants The Electrical Life of Louis Wain to be upbeat and uplifting. There are times when this feels disingenuous and artificial but, for the most part, it works. It also has the unfortunate side-effect of making the movie seem commonplace. Wain is a cliché whose like has passed across screens in many other (sometimes, but not always, better) stories. His life was unique but its telling, at least in this movie, represents a collection of motion picture tropes. They are assembled in such a way that the viewer sticks with them and their familiarity offers some comfort, but there’s nothing here to elevate The Electrical Life of Louis Wain out of the “generic bio-pic” basket.
Admittedly, there is something magical about the first half-hour. Sharpe’s direction lends a madcap energy to the proceedings which focus on establishing Louis’ chaotic home life and detailing his awkward romance with Emily (Claire Foy), the governess of his younger sisters. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy connect and the love between their characters seems both real and transcendent. Unfortunately, it’s also short-lived. By reflecting reality, the script writes Emily out before the movie is one-third finished and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain suffers a brownout from which it never recovers. Once Foy is gone, everything seems obligatory and a little pointless. That’s the problem with having a short-lived love affair become so strong that it upends the rest of the movie.
That “rest of the movie” details what happens to Louis in his post-Emily life. In the immediate aftermath, he becomes obsessed with using his prodigious skills as an artist to create images of cats engaged in human activities. (The voiceover narration notes that Wain’s drawings were instrumental in transforming cats from useful mouse-catchers into legitimate pets. There’s ample evidence, however, that the popularity of domestic cats predated Wain’s sketches.) Later in life, he suffered from schizophrenia and spent the final 15 years of his life in hospitals. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain dutifully chronicles all these episodes but it does so more out of a sense of obligation than because there’s any narrative momentum.
Cumberbatch has shown over the course of his career that he’s excellent at playing these sorts of introverted, brilliant, off-kilter characters. As such, he’s an ideal choice for Louis and there are lengthy periods during the film when his performance keeps the viewer engaged. Cumberbatch also uses his gift for sly, understated humor to keep the movie from becoming too dour. He is ably assisted by Foy (who, alas, departs too soon), Andrea Riseborough (who plays Louis’ older, more practical sister), and Toby Jones (as his editor).
I could easily list a half-dozen movies about famous artists/authors that fall into the same general category as this one. Excepting Cumberbatch’s performance and the strong visual sense, there’s not a lot to separate this from any of them. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain also commits the cardinal bio-pic mistake of trying to cram decades of life into under two hours – an exercise that results in things always feeling rushed. The end result is pleasant but unremarkable and, although history associates Wain with cats, the movie strangely underutilizes the four-legged animals.
Electrical Life of Louis Wain, The (United Kingdom, 2021)
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones
Screenplay: Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe
Cinematography: Erik Wilson
Music: Arthur Sharpe
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios/Prime Video