It would be impossible to imagine reliving in a time as dingy and frowzy as the Industrial Revolution. It was dirty, but it was also very productive, modernizing our world. The Americans had Thomas Edison; the Brits, simultaneously had to contend with an equally eccentric madman. Both just happened to be portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, now revisiting biopic territory in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. But at times does it skew away from the traditionalist nature of that genre to serve as a viable celebration of whimsy and anguish. For the titular hero’s mind, both go together, strolling together through the years.
Cumberbatch puts in a deliberate 110%, reserved in his empathy, to realize the role of Louis. As the lone boy in a family with five sisters, Louis does fight with some ugly duckling comparisons, channeling a lot of his quirkiness in illustrations for a big city newspaper. To his sibs, the print gig is the one bright spot they see out of him, knowing he can generate some of an income. He’s shunned, otherwise, for staying in his mind, absorbed into his work, drawing what he sees. It’s almost by sheer fate that his muse turns to cats. An animal best seen by the Victorian society of yesteryear as frivolous and unsophisticated. Louis sets out to undo that misconception through his art, crafting awe-inspiring masterpieces alongside finding the fruitfulness of electricity, and a mild crush turned marriage with family governess Emily (Claire Foy). The pair spark a kismet relationship, scoffing at the rigidity of societal rules, and recognizing each other’s deep weaknesses. For Louis, there’s the trauma of his parents’ death plaguing his mind; another aspect to fuel his more graphic drawings, as his mental state begins to decline from stress.
Wain truly grew mad for his art, this biopic expressing that emotional degradation with class, concern, and a kaleidoscopic color palette. Co-writer/director Will Sharpe (The Darkest Universe), joined by Simon Stephenson (Luca) on the script, combine all three like it were a second nature trick to them. Not unlike last year’s David Copperfield, the pattern is eerily similar, save for a less supportive family. Eldest sister and appointed matriarch Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) often grits her teeth as the disapproving voice of reason against Louis’ anti-social tendencies. Other tragic events within the family only worsen his eventual Van Gogh complex, escaping further into his feline obsession. His bond with Emily does keep him grounded, much of the time, Stephenson’s story is better off in avoiding too great a tonal swing.
Their love story proves sweet, simple, full of joy amid their shared inner strife. Before their courtship, Cumberbatch and Foy are seen distracted by their quiet pursuits. After, their walls crumble, their on-screen chemistry like colorful brush strokes, bold and deliberate with the echoes of Tracy and Hepburn at their most whimsical. Alone, Cumberbatch is an often jumbled, physically adept flurry of ideas, desperate to keep creating before they weigh down upon him. Foy’s the shy, bleakly sarcastic young woman much less sure of her life’s ambitions. The pair make each other better with every opportunity, crusading against the status quo of that era, Sharpe latching on and throwing in inundations of dry British wit all over their thread.
Wain’s very unconventional ideas lend greatly to the mere look of this biopic, especially as it appears that we’re watching more of a darkly ironic rom-com. It’s a little bit of both, depending greatly on the artist’s state at any point, between embracing his notable paintings, coloring the outdoor skies with colors we’d never associate, and framing certain wide shots with the low-key glamour of hobby shop scale models. Cinematographer Erik Wilson (Paddington 2) just has an effortless way of maintaining a firm steadiness while jumping from one style to another, following along with Wain’s ever-shifting consciousness at the peak of his career. We stay on his working mindset, and not so much the work in the latter half. Not that covering his declining mental health isn’t a terrible move for this story, the work and the brain fostering it could’ve wrapped around each other with added harmony.
What’s there is still plenty to sympathize for, leaning on the fragility of art, of love, of moments well spent and well wasted. Cumberbatch is very unfazed, organizing this wide range of emotional reactions into a sophisticated rhythm that works for his acumen, likely exceeding it without overacting the part at that brink of insanity. The presence of Olivia Colman’s straightforward narration, as well as Sharpe’s brother Arthur serving as composer, complete with haunting theremin, continually hammer that mental frailty to the point of utter melancholy. While random cameos by Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi (Max Kase), and Nick Cave (H.G. Wells) bring in brief moments of outsider clarity and support for Wain at his most apprehensible. All lovely touches, contribute to the overall period feel. Timing does not work in anyone’s fever, however, particularly in the final minutes of Louis’ story, struggling to grip to reality while plagued by a hallway of grief.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain really would not best describe what a typical biography would look, sound, or feel like. Neither Sharpe nor Stephenson are satisfied with the standard, moving on distinct footing, and pacing to capture the naturally idiosyncratic and abnormal framing of Wain’s crafty, bohemian mind. While, technically, it is still a biopic, the quirks of its subject distract us long enough to deepen the impacts of both his relationships and creations. While it was tragic how it may have ended, the middle ground that is Wain’s peak creativity should be how he is best remembered. Those sparks within, I’d say, are deservedly flattering. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain opens in select theaters (for Seattle area residents at Shoreline’s Crest Cinema Center) October 22, streaming bow on Prime Video November 5; rated PG-13 for some thematic material and strong language; 111 minutes.