The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, 2021.
Directed by Will Sharpe.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney, Hayley Squires, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Barratt, Asim Chaudhry, Indica Watson, Sophia Di Martino, Taika Waititi, Olivia Colman, Nick Cave, Jamie Demetriou, and Crystal Clarke.
English artist Louis Wain rises to prominence at the end of the 19th century for his surreal cat paintings.
Given the popularity of cat videos and their tendency to go viral on YouTube (and, of course, how adorable they are), it’s hard to imagine a world where they were often rejected as pets and perceived as a stigma. In that respect, it only makes sense for charmingly imbecilic and whimsical misfit Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch, shining in some parts of this biopic and coming across as embarrassing in others, particularly when he is caked in aging makeup) to have been the driving force behind their rise and acceptance, primarily accomplished with a life’s work of immaculate feline art (usually in a silly context, sometimes making them anthropomorphic and depicting them fishing) on full display with The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
In the back end of the nineteenth century, the eponymous Louis Wain provides for his five sisters (oldest of which is Caroline, played by Andrea Riseborough, and probably most fitting for the guardian role but is unable to do so due to outdated gender roles at the time) and mother (Haley Squires), often distracted by his many hobbies that never pan out into anything artistically or financially lucrative (an early amusing scene sees a play he has written heavily criticized). He’s also not interested in doing anything for the money, turning down William Ingram’s (Toby Jones) offer to have some drawings published in the local newspaper, simply because it would take away time from his other raging passions and prohibit him from drawing what he wants (animals, as he takes pleasure in doing a quick portrait of Adeel Akhtar’s dog on the train beforehand).
After some scolding from Caroline and realizing that he has to pay governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) somehow, Louis changes his tune. He also takes a liking to her romantically as they both share oddball personalities. However, Louis finds it difficult to express his feelings for several reasons, including social anxiety (he has a journal filled with sketches of traumatic incidents involving water) and plain old awkwardness. Considering one of her first scenes is hiding in a closet, they are an oddball match despite issues society, including Louis’ family, will have with the inevitable relationship.
For a while, most of this works due to the direction from Will Sharpe (co-writing alongside Simon Stephenson, who also conceived the story) that embraces the quirkiness of it all. The romance is delightful, the tone is lighthearted, and the disapproving family dynamic allows for conflict. Unfortunately, the family gets a bit too oppositional to the relationship as they get married, soon after moving away into a large home of their own, with Louis still fulfilling his supportive role mailing checks. Even when Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer and the tone shifts into sadness, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain still holds on to its spiritedness. The difficult dialogues Louis and Emily have are also emotionally performed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy without dipping into manipulation or rendering false.
Early into Emily’s life with breast cancer, the loving couple also takes in a stray cat soaked in the rain, quickly becoming a family member. Named Peter, the cat becomes a rare source of happiness and warmth during morbid times. He also turns out to be a source of artistic inspiration for Louis, who is now creating several drawings that Emily urges him to get published. Louis also has a peculiar mind, perceiving electricity as something beyond power; to him, it’s more of a lifeforce or a manifestation of energy that keeps humans going. Fearing inevitable loneliness when Emily departs, his line of thinking increasingly becomes wackier.
This is also where The Electrical Life of Louis Wain short-circuits, as, without Emily or the chemistry between the gifted actors, the script is unsure of what to do next. So it decides to throw everything at the viewer, running roughshod through the rest of Louis’ life, focusing on specific years for only 10 minutes at a time, ramping up the sentimental melodrama whenever it’s not glossing over how Louis’ magnificent cat portraits changed public perception of the animal. His mother is committed to an insane asylum, close friends die, and Louis, too, goes somewhat crazy. According to Olivia Colman’s narrator, it’s not all that bad because as the suffering kept piling up, Louis kept improving as an artist, which, truthful as it may be, feels like a misguided message for both 2021, strange to point out, and at odds with the lightweight first half of the narrative.
At the very least, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain goes about its third act footnotes of misery with visual flourishes; cats are subtitled as if the delusional Louis can have conversations with them, the artwork becomes more prominent and infused into the story, and it’s filled with hazy aesthetics. It also simply feels like a distraction for the remaining emptiness of the narrative. The second half doesn’t even feel like the same movie, striving for something emotionally draining in all its cloying emphasis on consecutive tragedies. It’s enough to make one wish the film wasn’t The Electrical LIFE of Louis Wain, scaled back to the aspects that work.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com