Film Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021)

Some may enjoy this more than me but I found The Electrical Life of Louis Wain to be almost insufferably twee despite Benedict Cumberbatch working hard

“The more intensely he suffered, the more beautiful his work became”

If you were playing Oscar-bait bingo, then you’d definitely want to draw biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Central character with vaguely defined mental condition, with a wife who dies young, plus Olivia Colman AND Benedict Cumberbatch in the cast. Maybe we should do shots rather than bingo, it might make the film a touch more bearable… 

Will Sharpe’s film seems likely to divide audiences. Not between dog lovers and cat fanciers as you might expect, but to weed out those who have a high tolerance for the insufferably twee. For in its attempts to depict the unique brain chemistry of artist Louis Wain, it errs towards a sepia-tinged, Colman-narrated vision of whimsy and wonder that belies the essential tragedy here.

Wain was known for his caricature-like images of cats which normalised the notion of felines as pets in the Victorian age. But his life was dominated by the need to be the breadwinner for his mother and five sisters after the early death of his father, a role for which he was spectacularly unsuited, a lack of financial acumen meaning the spectre of debt and ruin was never far away.

His cat pics were inspired by a period of emotional tumult following his marriage to his sisters’ governess, a bright turn from the excellent Claire Foy, happiness at first then anguish as she succumbs to cancer and it was she who inspired him to anthropomorphise his cats. The film is less clear about whether this was art or symptomatic of his increasing disconnect from reality.

There’s no doubting the commitment to Benedict Cumberbatch’s lead performance but it left me cold, reminding me of a lesser version of his many other troubled soi-disant geniuses. And an array of barely drawn supporting characters (Andrea Riseborough and Phoebe Nicholls particularly ill-served) and random cameos (blink and miss Taika Waititi or Nick Cave) add to the sense of fleeting flimsiness that accompanies every self-consciously quirky detour.

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