If not particularly compelling, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is buoyed by a flair for the whimsical and the strength of its lead.
Other than the fact that the film is a biopic, it’s the latest addition to the “Heartwarming Movies About Eccentric Characters With Long Titles” list. It joins the ranks of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”, and “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”. I went into this film asking one question: “Who the hell is Louis Wain?” He couldn’t be the guy to discover electricity, that was Benjamin Franklin… I think.
Did he invent something that ran on electricity? Was he struck by lightning and survived? I didn’t read the description and the poster wasn’t giving me any hints. And then the craziest thing happened. I was watching the film and it turns out THE DUDE JUST PAINTED CAT PORTRAITS! I couldn’t believe it.
It’s not often I watch a film and feel complete indifference towards it in the end. I can’t say it was great but I also can’t say it was terrible. With biopics, you will find writers and directors utilize the star power of their subjects to buoy what might be a subpar script or poor visual execution. Director Will Sharpe relies on Louis Wain’s infamy to tell the story of a man instead of a figure. Sharpe brilliantly blends the whimsical and the tragic in a way that’s fascinating. Louis Wain’s eccentricity can give way to the more dreamy visuals and optimistic philosophies while the tragic aspects of his life ground the film in reality.
The film had an intimate 4:3 aspect ratio that did the film and subject justice. Most biopics lack a visual personality and instead focus on the plot. I appreciated Sharpe’s decision to let his subject breathe in their own world and space. We watched Wain through moments of happiness as well as moments of great suffering. Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to the biopic genre. He’s played Thomas Edison, Alan Turing, and if it counts, The Grinch. Cumberbatch is constantly topping his ‘career best’s with performance after performance with no sign of a peak. Even if a performance doesn’t top his best he’s still an enjoyable presence onscreen.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” feels nothing like his peak. He was able to capture a man in countless stages from moderate youth to his feeble years. Wain’s mental illness took the forefront for most of his story and Cumberbatch navigates his disease with such realism and tragedy. There is a moment in the film where Wain is overcome by his illness and he panics, begging for his life. Watching our principal figure descend into the horrors of his mind is truly heartbreaking and the scene is only heightened by Cumberbatch’s performance and Sharpe’s filmmaking.
After watching the film, I learned that Louis Wain’s illness has been a long-debated topic. The film suggests Wain suffered from schizophrenia and as a result, was institutionalized. His schizophrenia is said to have manifested from a parasite within the feces of cats. However, some suggest that he actually was actually on the autism spectrum. Which can explain his eccentricities. Evidence contradicting Wain’s alleged schizophrenia lies within his art. His techniques as an artist never diminished, just became more abstract. The film never explicitly gives an answer but Sharpe makes sure to pay it no mind and focuses on Louis Wain’s talent and the joy he brought through his work
Overall, I felt the film possessed more positives than negatives. “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” pitfalls are hidden inside the film’s narrative. It constantly teeters between conventional biopic and profound character study. It was hard to stay engaged because of how familiar the story felt in comparison to other biopics. We’ve seen Cumberbatch in this role before and we’ve seen the eccentric artist descend into their illness. However, the film’s distinction from others is in its filmmaking. Sharpe had a realized vision that has the whimsy of a Wes Anderson film and the drama of Tennessee Williams play.
Though The Electrical Life of Louis Wain can take the backside of your watchlist, it’s worth some attention. Claire Foy accompanies Benedict Cumberbatch in a romance that’s heartwarming, Will Sharpe establishes himself as a director to look out for, and Louis Wain’s story is told with the utmost intimacy. I wasn’t familiar with Louis Wain or his work but thanks to the film, I’ve developed an appreciation for what he’s done and his place in art history.
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