TIFF Review – The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Louis Wain is not a historical figure that many people would even know, let alone know what Wain is famous for doing. I am one of those people, so The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) was an enjoyable treasure of a film and an education on the artist Louis Wain through the eclectic eye of director Will Sharpe and his co-screenwriter Simon Stephenson.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is based on a true story and would also qualify as a biopic of sorts. The film begins in 1881 and takes us through at least 1925. Louis (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an eccentric man with a bit of ADHD-like behaviors. Devoted to his craft, but he is also trying to pursue many developing skills simultaneously. As Olivia Colman narrates the film in parts, we learn that Louis is “the oldest and the malest” of his siblings, making him head of the household after his father’s recent death. He is providing for his mother and his sisters, some of which are still young. His sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) has hired a governess named Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to take over their education. Louis makes ends meet, illustrating for a London paper run by Sir William (Toby Jones), but it is not exactly providing for everyone to live well. Much to the chagrin of Caroline, Louis and Emily form a scandalous attachment, one well below Louis’ station, and goes against his family by marrying her.
Within his marriage to Emily, the couple adopts a cat, and Louis develops a knack for drawing the cat, Peter, eventually branching out to stylistic portraits of cats. The inclusion of various cat drawings in a Christmas edition provides a windfall for Louis and introducing the idea of having a pet cat to the English.
The film has both touching moments and ones of absolute hilarity. The narration by Colman provides for many of the laughs at the beginning, coupled with the physical state that Louis is constantly in; hair, face, and clothes are paid little mind by Louis (genius efforts by Michael O’ Connor and Vickie Lang). The possibility of a relationship with Emily makes Louis bare all his idiosyncrasies and blemishes to her, including his harelip which he usually hides behind a mustache. Emily pays no mind to it all, seeing the good in him.
The film has a smaller aspect ratio than usual, and Sharpe takes chances with the lighting and visuals. It makes it more exciting and appealing visually as well as enthralling due to the story. I likened some scenes to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) because of how they are presented and the risks taken in making this just not another biopic. There is a glorious use of color in moments that should reverberate with the audience, accentuating the feeling of love and loss and embracing Louis’ love of color and boldness. As Louis ages and loses his wits about him, the camerawork also changes to put the viewer more in his mind frame. The last scene fills up the screen with the feeling of love by painting extra color into the setting and warming it with the glow of a setting sun; it feels like Emily’s warm embrace.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Louis from a young man to a senior approaching the end of his life. Perhaps it is because of his work on Sherlock, but he is the perfect actor for such a person as quirky and scatter-brained as Louis Wain. The moments between Claire Foy and him are heart-warming and brought a tear to my eye multiple times. Cumberbatch can effortlessly pull at your heartstrings and then have you in stitches minutes later. It felt like he fully transformed into Louis and made every effort to have his life authentically transformed and told in the film.
The cat drawings are what Louis Wain was famous for, and through this delight of a film, Will Sharpe has educated us on an artist and put a name to the drawings should we ever see one in the wild. The way the film was adapted not just to be a dramatic biopic but one with heart and moments of hysterical laughter tells me as a film-lover to seek out more films by Sharpe and Stephenson. I want to see it again and tell others of its joy. There is not a dull moment in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Had his story fell into the hands of others, it would not have depicted Louis Wain’s life with such delight and creativity, yet treating it with the dignity a less famous but not forgotten artist deserves.