CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Jamie Demetriou, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Julian Barratt, Sharon Rooney, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Sophia Di Martino, Olivier Richters, Olivia Colman, Nick Cave, Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade, Cassia McCarthy, Indica Watson
RUNNING TIME: 111 mins
BASICALLY…: Eccentric artist Louis Wain (Cumberbatch) creates a series of surreal cat paintings that intrigue the world…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Between playing British spy Greville Wynne in The Courier and American lawyer Stuart Couch in The Mauritanian, it’s been a banner year for Benedict Cumberbatch portraying real-life figures in movies. The buck doesn’t stop there, for he’s saved perhaps his most unique biographical depiction for last – The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, directed and co-written by Will Sharpe, is a very stylish historical drama that captures the fiercely energetic and eccentric nature of the titular artist, in a fashion which may end up being divisive amongst viewers, but still provides an entertaining look at a far-from-ordinary life.
We first meet Cumberbatch’s Louis Wain in the late 1800s, where upon the death of his father and as the eldest child, he is tasked with providing for his household of sisters as an illustrator for The Illustrated London News. After hiring Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as the house’s new governess, Louis develops a close relationship with her that inspires an unusual collection of paintings and drawings revolving around anthropomorphic cats, which eventually become a sensation in Victorian England (a time when cats weren’t exactly considered as pets). Over the years, Louis battles with his newfound fame, tragic losses, and a gripping mental illness that separates his perception of reality.
Softening the blow, at least for the viewer, is the inclusion of several adorable cats that all but steal the entire show from their human co-stars. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain seems purposefully designed to appeal towards cat-lovers, with its tight close-ups on their tiny faces and even tinier bodies, and high-pitched mews which will practically make anyone watching it instantly want a kitten of their own. As with a lot of things in this movie, the filmmakers have fun playing up the cuteness of the cats, even giving them subtitles to accompany their meows like they’re precursor internet memes (while pouncing, one tiny kitten says how much it likes “jomping”), which give them hints of personality to make them some of the most lovable characters in the entire movie.
The movie as a whole is a playful event, with director Sharpe developing a, erm, sharp sense of humour through some of the absurd visuals within its boxed-in aspect ratio, and drole narration by Olivia Colman which isn’t afraid to get very matter-of-fact about some aspects of this story. It also allows you enough time with the characters to understand their vibrant thinking patterns, especially Cumberbatch’s titular artist as he initially goes from one odd career pattern to another (first he wants to draw, then he aspires to write a musical opera, with less than fortunate results), and even potentially one-note figures such as Andrea Riseborough as eldest sister Caroline, whose portrayal skirts the fine line between full-on pantomime villain and long-suffering tragic figure. The characters are entertaining and likeable enough to get you more invested in the story, while the cinematography is stunning in its use of colour, frame rates and at one point pure psychedelic surrealism to further your interest in what’s going on.
Naturally, as with a lot of feature-length biopics, the movie does skim past a number of key events which, in context to the rest of the story, should perhaps have been given more time to explore. A sub-plot about one of Wain’s sisters suffering from schizophrenia, a potential foreshadowing of Wain’s own struggles with mental health, is all but shoved to the side after its ten-minute window, while certain other moments in the artist’s life like his attempt to branch out in America and some First World War-era complications feel anecdotal instead of truly adding to the emotional nature of the plot, when again there could have been more depth added to these sections.
While it might not paint the full picture of the main figure’s rather fascinating existence, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a visually impressive, superbly acted – Cumberbatch, of course, does great here, as does Claire Foy in a charming supporting role – and often emotional biopic that refuses to be categorised with others of its kind, and neatly stands out as a stylish and eccentric film that deserves a decent amount of respect. Plus, for anyone who loves their feline companions, this is pure catnip.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a visually and emotionally rich biopic that features some superb performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, supremely colourful cinematography, and some adorable cat companions in a stylish film which only occasionally skims over some of the more interesting parts of the titular artist’s life.