VIFF 2021 Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

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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Paddington

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Paddington, an immensely huggable young Peruvian bear, ventures to London in search of a family after an earthquake destroys his home in the rain forest. People aren’t quite as nice or welcoming as he thought they’d be when he first arrives, but then he hits the jackpot: enter Sally Hawkins, as irresistible as ever, as Mrs. Brown, an artist who welcomes Paddington into her family’s home with more warmth and kindness than any immigrant could hope for.

Mr. Brown and his children are as skeptical as one might expect them to be about co-habitating with a bear (the daughter thinks Paddington will be an embarrassment, Mr. Brown, who’s hilarious, thinks he’s a liability to the house and kids), but eventually they come around. The whimsical and colorful design of the Brown household and the removal of walls for tracking shots from room to room are evocative of a Wes Anderson movie, but whereas Anderson deliberately distances you from the spaces he builds, Paul King invites you in. The spiral staircase at the center of the house is up against a floor to ceiling wall decal of a tree with pink leaves that you want to reach out and touch, and that you can imagine reminds Paddington of his home and relatives when he climbs the banister (instead of taking the stairs as the humans do).

Paddington’s search for the British explorer who once visited his Peruvian homeland and the threat of a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, delightfully icy) hunting Paddington give the narrative its forward momentum, but its the time spent in the Brown household that gives the film its most memorable charm. There are a handful of fish-out-of-water (or bear-out-of-the-rainforest?) bits that employ comic timing and musical cues to great effect (such as Paddington’s first experience with a human’s bathroom, him snatching a stranger’s dog when he reads a “Dogs Must Be Carried” sign next to an escalator, the entirety of a bank heist-like sequence at a geographical society building), but it’s the image of a cozy attic bedroom that the Browns make up for Paddington, and Hawkins poking her head up through the ceiling to check on him, that distill the movie’s unique loveliness.

Paddington Trailer