The subjects of most of Louis Wain’s work were cats, and given the modern obsession with all things feline, it might be easy to be cynical about biopic THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN. However, although the film initially threatens to be a twee affair, striving for originality (it doesn’t quite reach) beyond the strict biopic conventions, it eventually settles into a charming rumination on loss, memory, and the link creativity can create between the two.
Louis Wain was a real artist known primarily for his drawings of cats, and the nature of his creations changed over his lifetime, supposedly showing the onset of schizophrenia. Will Sharpe’s biopic follows Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) from his hiring by the Illustrated London News, his marriage to his younger sisters’ governess, Emily (Claire Foy), and the growing artistic success he used to support his family of five sisters.
The film opens with a chocolate box version of England. Narration from Olivia Colman, complete with quirky references to Wain making the world “happier and cattier”, segues into Wain chatting with a man (Adeel Akhtar) aboard a steam train who would like him to draw his dog. At this stage – with Cumberbatch leaning hard into the quirky speech patterns and mannerisms that English actors seem to generate when playing idiosyncratic men – the film seems overly trite. However, as the film develops and we learn more of Wain’s life and work, the picture becomes more rounded. Superficial observation of Wain’s real work – joyful-seeming and cutesy – glosses over a tragic life trajectory. Still, its early presentation proves an astute move on the part of the film by setting us up as viewers to sympathise as the film goes on.
“…as the film develops and we learn more of Wain’s life and work, the picture becomes more rounded.”
With that progression, the film strives in several ways to move beyond biopic conventionality. There is little in the form of unsubtle conversations about the value of Wain’s work and much more about his state of mind, how he reacts to loss and responsibility, and how he finds joy and the promise of continuing happiness by recalling happy memories. Cumberbatch is very effective in demonstrating this, but in a manner which we’ve seen before. The role feels akin to his Sherlock or THE IMITATION GAME’s version of Alan Turing in the tics and rapid-fire dialogue. However, this performance has a bit more warmth, conjuring empathy even under heavy ageing makeup.
Outside that central performance, the theremin-based elements on the score from Arthur Sharpe are a standout aspect. The electronic instrument can easily sound unnecessarily kooky but gives the film a distinctive edge that is not reliant on grating ‘eccentricity’ from the characters. Although this choice, in spirit, links to the title, the film doesn’t particularly illustrate what the concept of ‘electricity’ means to Wain. Despite his apparent fascination with it, it is merely occasionally spoken about as some sort of ephemeral energy.
“The film is most engaging and effective when it shows Wain’s relationships and how he emotionally handled them and the setbacks within.”
The presentation of his mental health struggles (and those of his family) are somewhat thin in the same manner as other films have been on the topic. Even when those issues transfer to our protagonist, little attempt is made to exemplify the experience beyond merely showing ‘odd’ behaviour. Further, a hinted link between a later diagnosis and a change in Wain’s art style is never really established (probably owing to the disputed nature of that link in reality). The film is most engaging and effective when it shows Wain’s relationships and how he emotionally handled them and the setbacks within.
THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN conducts a lot of charm, and the affecting performance of Cumberbatch reduces resistance to the film’s more twee elements in the opening stretch. The film and its script don’t quite spark with the originality they aim for, but it moves along with a pleasant electrical hum. Or should that be a purr?