Whimsy is always a tricky game to play onscreen, which pretty much guarantees that Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain will divide audiences. Excellent lead performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy bolster the uneven film, which premiered at Telluride, and its enchanting visual style also helps to compensate for some self-indulgence in the screenplay by Sharpe and Simon Stephenson.
Louis Wain was an illustrator best known for his stylish and sometimes outlandish drawings of cats. He was also an eccentric who espoused bizarre theories about the power of electricity to transform everyday life. Beginning in the late 19th century and into the 20th century’s first decades, Wain’s cat pictures caught the fancy of readers all over England. Some of the images would be recognized today, even by people who have never heard of Wain. The film intends not simply to recall his career achievements but also to delve into the personal struggles of the man.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
The Bottom Line
The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Foy electrifies this biopic.
Growing up in a household with a domineering mother and five eccentric sisters, Wain found himself pulled in all directions in his attempt to support them. When he returns home after a long absence, he finds that another woman has been added to the household, a governess named Emily Richardson (Emmy-winning Crown star Foy). Although he feels insecure about his appearance and is inexperienced at romantic courtship, he feels an instant attraction to Emily, which his family fiercely tries to discourage. Clearly they’re threatened by the prospect of a romantic entanglement that might leave them without the constant support they crave, but Louis and Emily refuse to be deterred by family objections.
The scenes of courtship and marriage are the best moments in the film. Cumberbatch and Foy play beautifully together; the chemistry is palpable, and both performers know how to charm audiences without overselling the romance. The couple’s discovery of a cat named Peter only adds to their domestic bliss. But of course there wouldn’t be a movie if their happiness were uninterrupted, and Emily’s illness alters not only their marriage but the dramatic arc of the film.
The last third of the movie consists of depressing scenes of familial and economic turmoil. One of Louis’ sisters is confined to an asylum, and Louis’ own mental health deteriorates. In addition, although he achieved commercial success with his cat paintings, he had no business sense and lost almost all his money. The downward spiral that takes him through the First World War and beyond puts a damper on the concluding sections.
What keeps us watching are the splendid visuals devised by Sharpe, cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson and production designer Suzie Davies. Sharpe chose to shoot the film in an unusual 4:3 ratio, and the nearly square picture frame heightens the richness of the brilliant palette. Even when the story turns depressing, the visual compositions are entrancing.
Fine performances also bolster the film. Andrea Riseborough contributes a commanding portrayal of Louis’ most domineering sister, and Toby Jones brings panache to his portrayal of Wain’s sometimes exasperated but indulgent editor. Olivia Colman, who co-starred with Sharpe in the British TV series Flowers, contributes witty and eloquent narration. And then it must be added that the supporting cast of more than 40 cats — live, not digitized — contribute some feline fun. The Electrical Life may not always sizzle, but it hums along pleasingly.