THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021)
“When it comes to drawing, there’s only one rule you ever need to teach. It’s to look.”
There is a moment inside The Electrical Life of Louis Wain where the character feels like they’re drowning inside a cabin of a sinking ship. They aren’t really drowning, but hallucinating a world they created for themselves. Somewhere to place all of their grief. That is what this movie is underneath its vibrant set pieces and whimsical score, a container for misery. Having little knowledge of Louis Wain’s life prior to viewing this new biopic about him, aside from recalling his signature renditions of anthropomorphic cats found in books, I was cautious that this film would be well-made but not well-received.
Will Sharpe directs this film as an amalgam of period piece textures spliced with bits of intimate and voyeuristic madness. This is all topped off with a thread of innocence as Sharpe explores real-life artist Louis Wain’s deteriorating mental health as it is juxtaposed against the fanciful career he built for himself based on sketches of cats. It is these illustrations that populate Wain’s resume that would become his legacy. Sharpe sprinkles in comedic vignettes that relieve us of the seemingly unending bout of pain that Louis Wain endures throughout his life. Or at least the amount they wanted to fit into the script.
In London at the end of the 19th century, Louis Wain, the oldest and only male sibling of 6, sees the world as a cloak, covering something bigger and brighter that lies underneath. He doesn’t think or act in accordance with how society has decreed he should behave. Instead of settling down with a strong, wealthy female suitor for financial stability to support his mother and batch of sisters, Wain pursues only what interests him. He is portrayed as a character that would likely fall on the autism spectrum if we looked at him through a modern lens, and is played smartly by Benedict Cumberbatch. Wain isn’t interested in romance, or courtship. Instead, he sees the world through a kaleidoscopic filter, of colors and patterns. He spies art and light everywhere. He locks his trauma in a journal and spends his days floating his artwork to newspapers for money between participating in boxing matches. This flies in the face of what is expected of him. His oldest sister, and de-facto matriarch, hurls her frustrations at him constantly.
When a governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) is hired to assist with the younger siblings, an unconventional courtship between her and Wain develops. It’s unconventional due to her scandalously being quite senior to Wain, but also because this is the first true romantic exchange he has. The pair marry, settle in a home and build a life before tragedy strikes in the form of cancer. I won’t spoil too much. But along the way of Wain and his wife navigating their upturned life, they adopt a stray cat, Peter.
Peter would become the impetus to Wain's life work. With a need to place his fear, anxiety and creativity, Wain produces paintings and drawings of cats that would catapult him to a pedestal of fame. The film covers the shinier and undoubtedly harsher spots in Wain’s life as it spans over many decades. Some of these beats land as hard jabs to the soul, while others hug the heart.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Cumberbatch and Foy, as well as a strong supporting cast, speak in flowy English politeness. This tendency to maintain a calm exterior and to not rock the boat, as is a cliche in this time period, is a mask worn well by the whole cast. The mask of course being the facade shielding everyone’s pain, doubt and insecurity. We’ve seen Cumberbatch run this route before, almost to the letter, in The Imitation Game. While I have seen the “socially feebled - brilliant minded misanthrope” trope done before and better, Cumberbatch delivers an integrity that does justice to the narrative. Foy brings vulnerability and poise to Emily; she brings love and accountability to Wain’s aloofness.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The make-up work on display here is top-notch. We see Wain in various stages of his life, with the latter decades showing him in wrinkly skin and graying thinned hair. The visual effects that reflect his declining mental health are punchy and gorgeous and thankfully used sparingly.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Arthur Sharpe’s score is the strongest part of the film. Instead of heart-string pulling phrases of music, begging us to cry or laugh, Sharpe (brother of director Will) splashes lofty and subtle cues of music. The notes and sound embrace the scene warmly instead of crashing with a pretentious announcement. The music celebrates the electricity in the world that only Louis Wain could see. It flows like an exquisite current.
“You can run away from your family, you cannot run away from your grief.”
There is a lot of pain in this film. I mentioned earlier that this story is a container for misery, but also a channel for sitting with pain and navigating through it. It is indeed well made and after having the uncomfortable but cathartic narrative swirl in my head hours after viewing, I’m hopeful it is well-received. This looks like Amazon Studios’ lightweight contender for the upcoming Oscar season. And it is good, but great? I found myself being pulled a bit by many tones here, where the story wants to have it both ways. Wain leaves his family home, gets married, eventually finds his way to New York. This is very much a drama based on period context and class systems. The other thread is this deeper exploration of his art with his drawing and painting of cats, where his pivots are motivated by escaping pain and outrunning his anguish. I found this part of the story much more interesting and dare I say, much more electric. I’m sure Louis Wain would agree.