Reel Reviews | The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (TIFF ’21)

by David Erlich | IndieWire

Fresh off delivering the best and most unexpected performance of his career in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” Benedict Cumberbatch retreats to more familiar territory in a whimsical Victorian biopic that might as well be called “The Ridiculousness of the Cat.”

Of course when it comes to the late 19th- and early-20th-century artist Louis Wain — whose adorable illustrations of big-eyed moggies effectively invented our modern understanding of felines as domestic friends — “ridiculousness” is meant with the utmost affection. After all, Wain was nothing if not a ridiculous man himself, at least by the rigidly classist standards of his time.

An eccentric polymath who compensated for his lack of people skills with a savant-like gift for sketching animals (his talents as a pianist, a boxer, and a mad scientist were somewhat less impressive), Wain was the sort of person who would probably be diagnosed with everything from ADHD to Borderline Personality Disorder if he were alive today. But Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is far less concerned with the uncertain details of its subject’s mental health than with the warmth and whimsy he brought to the world in spite — or in large part because — of how differently he saw it.

“You are a prism through which the beam of life refracts,” his wife Emily (Claire Foy) tells him at one point, but Sharpe’s portrait is so determined to capture the full rainbow of Wain’s singular hues that it soon becomes a muddled soup of mismatched quirks. The result is a sweet but overstretched fable that ultimately amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a cat drawing: Cute, harmless, and quickly exasperating for anyone forced to stare at it for 111 minutes.

Cumberbatch is predictably excellent in the manic and mustached title role; perhaps too predictably so, as the actor’s pursed depictions of history-shifting oddballs (from Thomas Edison and Alan Turing to Julian Assange and The Grinch) are starting to blur together in a way that can make a man as sui generis as Louis Wain feel like someone we’ve seen before. But Louis’ gifts are modest and unusual enough to stand out. His defining superpower is an ability to draw anything in a matter of seconds — one pencil in each hand, their tips scribbling across the page with the precision of an inkjet printer.

It’s a talent he blithely displays to the editor of The Illustrated London News (Toby Jones as Sir William Ingram), a hard man nevertheless impressed enough to offer Wain a job. Alas, Louis is almost as bad with money as he is good with sketches and so — to the enormous chagrin of his eldest sister, Caroline, an anxiously delicate worrywart played by the ever-chameleonic Andrea Riseborough — he rejects the gig. A bitter pill to swallow considering Louis is the only man in a family teeming with underwritten women, and the Wains are facing a financial crisis of “Howards End” proportions. Louis begrudgingly reconsiders when Caroline explains she can’t afford a governess for their other siblings, but our hero’s frown is turned upside down the moment he lays eyes on the live-in hire.

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