‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ Film Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Lights Up Eccentric Biopic

As an artist with a love of cats (but no head for business), Cumberbatch taps into his playful side, which fits the film’s oddball tone

The Electric Life of Louis Wain

This review of “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” was first published on September 11 after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Benedict Cumberbatch will be operating on two different frequencies this fall festival season. On one level, we have his villainous turn in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” The other will see Cumberbatch in a more familiar, if sillier, part as the namesake eccentric genius in Will Sharpe’s quirky biopic “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.”

A childlike idealist and inventor by nature, Wain finds a modicum of success as an illustrator of adorably anthropomorphized cats in Victorian England. But because he’s never had a mind for business, a lack of copyrights enables other copycats and publishers to cash in on his ideas, draining the badly needed funds Wain could use for his ailing wife — and family governess — Emily (Claire Foy) and his estranged four sisters and mother, who separated themselves from Louis after his marriage.

While his professional and personal lives were turned upside down many times over, Wain always found comfort in cats, their personalities and behaviors and, according to his eccentric theories, their ability to one day use electricity to evolve. He drew cats with wide expressive eyes and playful human-like expressions, a concept that quickly found an audience. However, Wain’s financial problems persisted, and when coupled with increasing bouts of mental illness, almost doomed the eccentric painter to a Dickensian end. 

Cumberbatch plays Wain as a bashfully sweet but strange eccentric. He’s a childlike figure who, once fascinated by something, is wholly transfixed by it, a part Cumberbatch plays very well. He stiffens and shortens his words when uncomfortable; when trying to fit in at a men’s club, he inevitably and hopelessly sticks out, using his long limbs to awkwardly swim in the pool alongside his embarrassed boss (Toby Jones).

But when he’s in Emily’s presence, Cumberbatch loosens Wain’s posture and mannerisms. He feels safe with her and relates to her own eccentricities, opening up the possibility for a more relaxed version of himself. 

However, Louis is a confounding source of frustration for his eldest sister (Andrea Riseborough), who is forced to step up in his patriarchal absence. In Victorian England, there is only so much she can do –- she can manage the money, but only Louis can earn it –- which sets up a painfully antagonistic dynamic between them for the rest of their lives. A surprise appearance by the voice of Olivia Colman hangs over the events of the movie as she guides the audiences through the chapters, both bemusing and tragic, of Wain’s life. 

Director Sharpe makes some bold creative decisions that will either charm or repel viewers. His vision of Wain’s story is much more whimsical in nature than the traditional biopic, including colorful and artfully composed scenes filmed by cinematographer Erik Wilson (“Paddington 2”) that blur the line between fantasy and reality.

Simon Stephenson and co-screenwriter Sharpe’s script peppers in jokes that happen once, only to never repeat themselves, like subtitled cat dialogue or fanciful cameos from Taika Waititi and Nick Cave, to keep the overall tone of the movie light even as Wain’s story grows darker.

As Wain’s mental illness progresses, these out-of-the-ordinary visions become increasingly stranger, essentially like  “Pink Elephants on Parade” from “Dumbo,” but with the anthropomorphized cat people –- Wain’s creations –- come to life. But as tragic biopics go, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” isn’t interested in wallowing in misery. Instead, this amusing retelling of Wain’s life is a way to introduce his quirky illustrations to a new generation, putting them in a new light that’s more in line with the irreverent and animated creatures Wain once imagined years ago.

“The Electric Life of Louis Wain” opens in US theaters Oct. 22 and on Prime Video Nov. 5.


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