The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
dir Will Sharpe
scr Simon Stephenson, Will Sharpe
prd Adam Ackland, Ed Clarke, Leah Clarke, Guy Heeley
with Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Dorothy Atkinson, Julian Barratt, Taika Waititi, Nick Cave
narr Olivia Colman
release US 22.Oct.21,
UK 1.Jan.22
21/UK StudioCanal 1h51

riseborough jones squires

Is it streaming?

foy and cumberbatch
Highly stylised in the form of an old-time movie, with added quirky touches and hints of a modern sensibility, this offbeat British biopic is impossible to pigeonhole. And filmmaker Will Sharpe isn't afraid to mix overwhelming cuteness with pitch-black drama and soaring sentimentality. It's all a bit too mannered to properly engage the audience, but it does look amazing, and it features some defiantly singular performances.
Living with his mother and five spinster sisters in 1880s London, Louis (Cumberbatch) is the eccentric head of his family, a hyperactive sketch artist who draws with both hands simultaneously for a newspaper edited by Sir William (Jones). When Louis falls in love and marries the younger siblings' governess Emily (Foy), his eldest sister Caroline (Riseborough) is scandalised, as are the neighbours. Later when Emily becomes gravely ill, their pet kitten Peter helps her feel better. So Louis begins drawing anthropomorphised sketches of the cat. And these become hugely popular, making him nationally famous.
The story races through the years, with a boisterous sense of the Wain family's homelife and a strong hint that mental issues are at play. Indeed, one sister (Squires) is sent away to an asylum, and Louis also finds himself institutionalised. This impacts his drawings, as do world events, a brief trip to New York and a fundraising campaign run by HG Wells (Cave). All of these things cascade across the screen with colour and energy, punctuated by Louis' internal fears and constrained emotions.

Cumberbatch's performance is remarkable, revealing Louis' childlike genius in a way that's downright Gumpian. His wide-eyed innocence and open-handed approach make him unusually sympathetic, especially as mental issues begin to reveal themselves. Opposite him, Foy's Emily stands out as an intelligent, modern woman who sees through his eccentricities, while Riseborough's Caroline sharply balances sisterly love with annoyed judgementalism. And Colman's narration has a lovely timelessness to it.

While it looks simply glorious, the constant nuttiness of Sharpe's filmmaking is more than a little distracting, often undermining the central narrative about a brilliant and talented man who is battling personal demons and struggling to keep life on track, even as his art brings joy to millions of people. Louis Wain's story is astonishing in its complexity, and the film reveals that there was rather a lot going on behind those familiar big-eyed cat paintings. It's a clever reminder that the truth is rarely on the surface.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 22.Sep.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall