TIFF ’21 – ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ Honours An Eccentric And Forgotten Artist – Review
Are you a cat person? Do you love them? Well, what if I told you there was a time where cats were not considered proper household pets and that their reputation was in the dumps for a while? Of course, that isn’t the case anymore and Louis Wain is amongst the reasons why.
Wain is considered someone who popularized cats, or at the very least, gave them some good PR in the 1800s. The artist was an eccentric man who specialized in painting animals. Although he has faded into obscurity, director and writer Will Sharpe presents a fairly comprehensive and endearing portrayal of a man who did so much for cats.
In this biopic, Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is presented as a man destined to be alienated by society. However, despite struggling to get by and provide for his family, he wouldn’t cease being an artist. This biopic highlights that through art, and during Wain’s darkest times, this artist gave his country happiness. Some may not see painting cats with abnormally large eyes as an act of heroism, but it is. Anyone who provides just an ounce of happiness to another is a hero. Sharpe’s film is a delicate portrayal of a man whose whimsy and eccentricity helped others, especially his loving wife Emily (Claire Foy).
While the film aims to condense almost the entirety of Wain’s life, some of the nuance of the man gets lost in the whimsy and biopic formula. It is in Benedict Cumberbatch’s extraordinary performance where we get so much of Wain’s complex interior life. His struggles and pain are clear to see but his determination to keep being an artist is never lost under these layers. It’s a nuanced performance that aims to inform audiences of this man’s existence, how his gift was transformative and how impactful art can be. The film is very much an actor’s showcase as it gives so much for Cumberbatch to work with. On the other hand, we have Claire Foy. Foy may be relegated to the obligatory supportive wife role in the film, but she too brings care and understanding to her character. Emily was a pivotal part of Wain’s life and Foy honours her memory with a sweet, endearing performance.
Sharpe’s approach to the biopic was to strip it of the usual tropes that often make biopics so bland. Although the story does follow a very similar narrative structure, Sharpe gives the film a much needed injection of spirit. The joy of the film is in how Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Wilson inject light and life into a story that in someone else’s hands would have been extremely sad. Wain’s life was filled with trials and tribulations, and despite his enormous success, he would end up penniless and alone in a mental institution in his remaining years. His life was derailed by a lack of understanding and study of mental health, but that did not take away from the utter joy and hope his paintings and his art gave to him and others. This is best illustrated in the scenes with Louis and Emily, with their romance depicting the healing power of art.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a positively delightful biopic that promises to reintroduce a vital English artist to modern-day audiences. It doesn’t position itself as an authority on Louis Wain’s life. A heavily fact-based biographical film would certainly shed light on the dire situation of mental health in the 19th century, but Sharpe and co-screenwriter Simon Stephenson opt to tell a story that lifts the spirit. It doesn’t turn away from harsh realities but it aims to consider Wain’s impact on society and art. Even if he was unable to see how his art touched people, Sharpe crafts a tale that promises to recapture the magic of his gifts and give him the respect he so richly deserved when he was alive.