If you look at some of the cat portraits scrawled by Louis Wain, you might think an electrical current was running through them. The fibers of feline hair seem charged by some force that propels the coiled fur, compelling them to dance around just as their anthropomorphic owners do. But The Electrical Life of Louis Wain proposes that Wain—an English illustrator in the late 19th century, who became renowned for his humorous portraits of cats—had more than just an artistic dalliance conjuring electric pencil strokes. As the Victorian era in England reached its autumn years and technology began to power the impending future, the film’s version of Wain is preoccupied with the idea that people were powered by electricity, too. That human beings and creatures with beating hearts harbored charges of unseen energy, which hummed and buzzed outside our realm of conception—even connecting us to past and future.
Directed by Will Sharpe (Sherlock), The Electrical Life of Louis Wain remains a conventional biopic in most ways while attempting to imbue some—ah—electricity, into the tired subgenre. Forgoing the artist’s childhood, the film chronicles Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) from his years as a young man and part-time illustrator caring for his large family in the wake of his father’s death, to his passionate but doomed marriage to Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) and his later life confined to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia (though that diagnosis has been debated in the years following his death). Narrated cheerfully throughout by Olivia Colman, Wain begins the film as something reminiscent of Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan. Eccentric, meek and socially awkward, Wain is overwhelmed by his chaotic household as the sole brother, and now designated breadwinner, of six sisters along with their mother.
When the equally awkward and sweet Richardson arrives to help care for the younger Wain children, Wain’s life is further complicated by his feelings for her. Though a courtship between a gentleman and a lady of servitude was seen as taboo for the time period, Louis and Emily were eventually joined in holy matrimony and lived a happy life together, until Emily’s diagnosis of breast cancer. It was during this time leading up to her death that the couple took in a cat named Peter, an act also perceived as unconventional back when the animals were thought of strictly as disposers of household vermin. The uniting love that the couple shared for Peter served as the catalyst for Wain’s artistic fixation with cats as a way to cope with his grief. And, thus, Wain’s career as a celebrated artist of anthropomorphic cats and champion of domestic, household felines took off; that is, until a failure to copyright his widely reproduced work left him nearly penniless, and his family in debt.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is undoubtedly poignant, even if such heartrending moments are articulated in a way that aims to revert the film to its tried-and-true, awards-posturing biopic roots. Dressed up in quirky fuss and frills, the film can’t escape the conventionality inherent to its own chosen framework. Though, that’s certainly not to say it doesn’t try. Enchanting storybook set design, backgrounds that evoke matte paintings, reenactments, animations and, of course, subtitled cat meow translations, all purport an earnest attempt to play around with the standard life-and-times look at an acclaimed historical figure. But the strokes of ingenuity meant to match the film’s idiosyncratic subject are too sporadically placed, wearing quirk like a costume instead of pulsing with it. Because of this, instances of true splendor are broken up by cloying monologues, familiar themes, guiding narration and grab-bag cameos from the likes of Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi and Nick Cave (the latter an avid Wain fan and collector), that homogenize the vibrancy intrinsic to Wain’s own work.
All this to say, it’s the performances that really electrify the film (sorry), filled out by an ensemble cast of faces like Toby Jones, Aimee Lou Wood, Julian Barrett and Stacy Martin. Apart from Cumberbatch’s winsome embodiment of Wain’s good-hearted spirit yet tragically chaotic mind, Andrea Riseborough is commanding—and frequently funny—as Wain’s domineering sister, Caroline. The dynamic between the two of them, and the dynamic of the Wain family as a whole, produces a sense of familial emasculation of Louis, one carried in Cumberbatch’s performance that once again harkens back to Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan. But the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Foy is what sustains the film as its lifeblood. Foy effortlessly plays the foil to Cumberbatch’s odd duck persona with that of an equally peculiar, but far more confident complementary spirit. When Richardson dies, it’s unclear how the film could possibly go on without her. Wain, of course, doesn’t know how he will either.
It’s possible that there really were electric charges surging through Wain’s cat pictures, as he apparently believed the animals could act as conductors of the stuff. Louis Wain’s years-long fascination with harnessing electricity is portrayed as the connecting thread throughout his intensifying mental illness. He travels to America at one point, where he meets newspaper writer and editor Max Kase (Waititi) and gives a talk that, ultimately, turns into an uncomfortable tirade espousing his delusions; Wain’s fits of madness are comparably distressing. Yet, it is ironic that a film about a man so captivated by this spark cannot seem to capture him in a way that truly equals his kinetic spirit (even if excessively veering camerawork may attempt to add some dynamism). The Electrical Life of Louis Wain can’t quite live up to its magnetic subject, but it’s still a warm celebration of a renegade artist and revolutionary forbearer of the funny cat video.
Director: Will Sharpe
Writers: Will Sharpe, Simon Stephenson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones
Release Date: October 22, 2021 (limited); November 5, 2021 (Amazon)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.