No stranger to playing troubled yet hugely gifted British geniuses, Benedict Cumberbatch is back on period-biopic duty following his stirring and impactful portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, along with Thomas Edison in The Current War. This affecting drama shines a light on the undersung Edwardian artist, along with the tragic stigma and mistreatment of those suffering with mental health issues at the time.
Directed by Will Sharpe, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain illustrates the life of eccentric British illustrator and aspiring inventor Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) and how he changed the way we perceive cats, thanks to his surrealist but delightfully playful illustrations. Charting his rise to fame, along with his enchanting romance and eventual marriage to Emily (Claire Foy), Louis’ life changes forever after adopting stray kitten Peter. Initially drawn to amuse his wife, his anthropomorphised cat caricatures became an overnight success once published in the London News. However, the Edwardian artists eccentricities only deepen following a certain tragedy.
For those who aren’t aware of the artists’ history and legacy and are going into the film purely based off the trailers, you could be in for a surprise. The first hour proves a whimsical and breezy delight, as the quirky and often frantic Louis, who is the sole provider for his mother and five sisters, finds himself falling for their governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy). Affectionately narrated by the brilliant Olivia Colman, their frowned upon romance plays out much like an Austen drama, and it’s here where the film shines most brightly. The couples’ relationship is tender and hugely charming, with Emily wholeheartedly accepting Louis’ foibles and seemingly proving a calming influence. When the pair adopt the adorable stray kitten Peter, everything seems to fit in place perfectly, and it’s difficult not to be swept away in this idyllic bliss in the countryside.
However, the rest of the film is a little jarring tonally and unsure of itself, as Sharpe struggles with illuminating the artists’ most difficult days and his subsequent struggles with mental health. Despite the fact that this film will break your heart and leave you in a tiny puddle, (which was completely unexpected considering the film’s colourful and charming marketing) the subsequent rush to illustrate the rest of Louis life does leave you reeling somewhat. Simon Stephenson’s script heavily mentions the illustrator’s obsession with “electricity” and yet Sharpe appears to struggle with the depiction of his decline. At times it’s portrayed through a truly empathetic lens, but others in a more whimsical and eccentric manner – unfortunately never truly striking a balance throughout.
Cumberbatch is, as always, on fine form – dazzling as the hugely imaginative, creative but awkward soul who often struggles to live up to familial and societal expectations. His central dynamic with Foy (and the adorable cats) is full of warmth and affection, proving the true heart of the film. Toby Jones is another highlight as Louis’ exasperated but affectionate editor, while the film is also full of brilliantly bizarre cameos ranging from Taika Waititi to Nick Cave.
Thanks to production designer Suzie Davies’ kaleidoscopic visuals, Erik Wilson’s hugely colourful cinematography (drawing from a predominantly pastel palette) and the often quirky vignette flourishes (and cat subtitles!), Louis Wain proves one of the most creative and visually distinctive films to kick off the new year. Composer Arthur Sharpe’s unconventional, whimsical and often melancholy score – which is heavy on the theremin and electrical atmospheres – perfectly compliments the film’s look, feel and themes.
While often a quirky and lovingly endearing ode to Wain’s vibrant creativity, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain isn’t quite the rosy film the marketing paints it out to be. Despite the uneven tone, there’s no doubting Cumberbatch’s vulnerable and nuanced turn, sharing a wonderful dynamic with Claire Foy and their sweet cat Peter. Just be prepared to take some tissues!