VIFF 2021 Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

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.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

The Evening Hour

Written by Patrick Hao


Movies haven’t quite gotten a handle on how to portray the ongoing opioid epidemic in America, especially with how it affects the rust belt states. Ben is Back and Beautiful Boy falls into cloying sentimentality, and Hillbilly Elegy and Cherry were grotesque caricatures meant for the rich coastal elites to feel better about themselves. Braden King’s The Evening Hour is a more compassionate and thoughtful film about the opioid crisis, but it never reaches anything beyond its modest ambitions.

The film centers on Cole Freeman (Phillip Ettinger), a compassionate elder care nurse who buys unwanted opioid pills from his patients in order to sell to others. He views his deeds as a service to help the ailing unidentified town in Appalachia, helping those who are injured or the hopelessly addicted. Freeman rather they get the drugs from him than the local drug kingpin, Everett (Marc Menchaca), who tolerates the petty competition. Unfortunately, any sense of balance or happiness is disrupted when Freeman’s absent mother (Lili Taylor) comes back to the town, as well as a former high school friend Terry (Cosmos Jarvis) who wants a piece of the larger drug trade.  

Through Freeman, a mosaic is painted of the town, from party girl Charlotte (Stacy Martin) to an eccentric fellow caregiver Reese (Michael Trotter). Kerry Bishé (who is always great and should be a household name) especially shines as someone who could have gotten away but had to come back. Based on a novel by Carter Sickels, The Evening Hour feels like an adaptation of a literary work. Supporting characters do not get enough moments to gain the interiority a novel may afford them. Freeman simply bounces around to each character interaction as if they were video game NPC’s.  

King is empathetic and respectful to the people who populate his movie. The film does not pass judgment on anyone. It recognizes the underlying pain of economic hardship and a political system that has passed them by. Yet, King never delves into histrionics like in Hillbilly Elegy, just quiet perseverance and a will to survive. Even the moral quandary Freeman faces about his culpability in people’s addictions is left open-ended and without judgment.   

But these virtues also lead to the film’s largest problem – it is patient and subtle to a fault. The film is all atmosphere underscored by the lilting strums of frequent King collaborators, Boxhead Ensemble. As the film turns to its more crime thriller elements at the end, King continues to underplay it. Instead of a tense Cormac McCarthy-esque final third act, the film’s conclusion is staid and unaffecting.

There is an urgent need for a great movie about the present opioid crisis – one that deals with the complications and systems that underlies. This film at least treats these characters with the humanity that is often forgoed by more mainstream Hollywood far. However, despite the good intentions of the filmmakers, The Evening Hour is far too restrained to ever be great.

The Evening Hour Trailer

The Evening Hour opens in limited release in New York on July 30th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.