It seems that whenever there’s a need to cast an eccentric genius, they turn to Benedict Cumberbatch. Over the years, he’s played characters like Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing, and Frankenstein in National Theatre’s production – so why not add Louis Wain into the mix? We all know Louis Wain for the marvellous, kitschy cat art he produced over the years, and this film attempts to dive into what marked such an obsession for him. I thought Cumberbatch was competent in the role, a bit overwrought and hyperbolic, but given the intense dreamscapes of the character, I understand what he was trying to go for.
The film is wonderfully beautiful, so quirky in tone and aesthetic, with each frame of the film a piece of artwork that I would love to adorn my walls. There are moments where I paused the film just to go back, to bask in the sheer prettiness that is director Will Sharpe’s creation. The soundscape reflects the quirkiness of the visuals, but as we progress through the film, the sounds of whimsy transform into a deep melancholic tone, as the sadness of his circumstance takes hold.
As the only son in a family of daughters, Wain was the sole breadwinner for his mother and five sisters, taking on the financial burden of the household. There was a lot demanded of him, and it didn’t help that Louis was often distracted by his own mind and couldn’t quite keep up with the practical matters of business. Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Louis does seem to suggest that he might have been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum if he lived in today’s society. Because of what existed in his mind, a mind rife with “dark, screaming hurricane of crippling anxieties,” Louis despaired of ever meeting someone to be with.
This is until he meets Emily (Claire Foy), who brings into his life the elusive happiness he’s been searching for. The film definitely perks up a little when Foy enters the fray, and she lights things up as the lovely Emily. The interactions between the two – their brief courtship and married life – are the best parts of the movie. But as we know, Emily gets sick soon after she and Louis are married, and the moment she’s gone, whatever spark the film had extinguishes as well.
The heart of the movie is gone, and we are forced to witness Louis’ descent into some kind of madness, as he suffers a break from reality. This is gradual and not immediately after her death, so you can imagine the draining spiral, and the sheer exhaustion imposed on the viewer trying to follow along. The visuals also get more psychedelic to capture the state of Wain’s mind, which was reflected in how his cat paintings got more and more bizarre.
Olivia Colman’s narration does add a measure of wit and humour to the film, but because there isn’t a particular plot, the film meanders, unsure of what it is trying to say. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a standard, paint by numbers biopic, and though the visuals are certainly striking and well suited to the film’s subject, the storytelling itself isn’t particularly gripping. While I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Louis Wain and his remarkable life, the film itself remains a rather safe endeavour.
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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a large dose of melancholia. While beautiful, it doesn't offer the viewer much from a narrative standpoint, so much so that we find ourselves out at sea for most of it.
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