Written by Anna Harrison
Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has all the features of a typical biopic: a cast of well-respected British thespians, including Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Louis Wain, a clear life trajectory for our subject to follow, and some nice period costumes to boot. Yet The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, like its protagonist, has something else, too—a certain spark, an unwillingness to entirely play things by the rules—that elevates it above your standard, stuffy British fare.
Louis Wain would go on to become known for his paintings of cats, both anthropomorphized and not, but starts the film doing illustrations of livestock shows for Illustrated London News’ editor, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), trying to stretch what he earns far enough to provide for his mother and five sisters while paying the salary of their new governess, Emily (Claire Foy). Louis, whose mind is rather more preoccupied with his illustrations, pending patents, and opera librettos than with the family finances, finds himself drawn to Emily, and Emily likewise to Louis. Their courtship is bumbling and awkward, sweet and charming, but it causes eldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) to seethe at the impropriety of it all.
Vancouver International Film Festival 2021
The two nonetheless get married and settle into a blissful married life—so blissful, in fact, that many moments of their life rather resemble paintings, and the line between reality and fantasy blurs. Cinematographer Erik Wilson adds to the whimsy, and so despite Louis’ recurring nightmares and troubled mental state, things are cheery and beautiful; however, when Emily finds herself diagnosed with breast cancer, that whimsy begins to fade. To cheer his wife’s spirits, Louis takes to painting pictures of their adoptive stray cat, Peter, and at Emily’s urging, shows his work to Sir William, who takes an immediate liking to the art. Louis’ art begins to take off, but his financial state and mental health decline.
Cumberbatch plays to his strengths here, though the frequency with which he plays other tortured geniuses means that some of his good work as Wain threatens to become routine or familiar, only because he’s done it so often before. That doesn’t mean he becomes complacent by any means; in fact, he also serves as executive producer, and the passion for this project is palpable. Foy gives an equally compelling performance as Emily, and the rest of the cast proves up to the task as well; simply sit back and watch the rest of the cast, from Nick Cave to Taika Waititi to Olivia Colman, do their work.
Where other biopics might resort to overwrought melodrama as Louis’ circumstances begin to change for the worst, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain keeps no small amount of charm; Louis begins to imagine his cats talk to him, and Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson add subtitles to voice the cats’ thoughts, which are appropriately cat-like in their humor. The film approaches Louis’ worsening mental state with kindness—a change from many Oscar bait biopics, which wring every ounce of misery possible out of their leads—and, while the interludes in which the audience is transported into Louis’ dreams and nightmares might have varying degrees of success, Sharpe always treats his subject with tenderness. It’s this sincerity that picks the film up when it might otherwise stumble; like its protagonist, while it’s not perfect, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain offers something to the world that’s worth having.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain Clip
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was screened as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2021.
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