Movie Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

You have probably seen his artwork but not known who the artist was.  Louis Wain’s whimsical illustrations of anthropomorphic, large-eyed cats singing carols, playing golf, enjoying plum pudding or just posing against a psychedelic background have elated cat fanciers and others for over a century.  Now, Will Sharpe (TV’s FLOWERS) has brought Wain’s “electric” but troubled life to the screen from a story by Simon Stephenson.

In THE ELECTRIC LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, Benedict Cumberbatch (the AVENGERS franchise; THE MAURITANIAN; THE COURIER; 1917; THE CURRENT WAR) plays the eponymous Victorian-era illustrator, inventor and general eclectic.  The only son of an upper middle-class family in London, Louis is responsible for the financial well-being of his mother and five younger sisters after the death of the Wain patriarch.  To keep them in the style to which they are accustomed, Louis takes a job at a newspaper going to agricultural fairs and drawing animal illustrations.  It isn’t a lot of income but it is enough for them to hire a governess named Emily Richardson (Claire Foy, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB; FIRST MAN; UNSANE, BREATHE; TV’s THE CROWN) for the youngest of the sisters.  Louis and Emily marry soon after, causing tongues to wag among the Wains’ social circles as Richardson is from a lower social class and she is a good deal older than Wain (though the latter isn’t mentioned in the film and Foy is younger than Cumberbatch), but the two are truly kindred spirits.  It wasn’t to last long though, as Emily dies just a few years later.  Louis finds solace in drawing illustrations of their pet cat Peter, which soon develops into more colourful and whimsical cat drawings and paintings for which he becomes famous on both sides of the Atlantic.  Sadly, his life after Emily’s passing is just as tragic.

While Louis’ life story is an interesting one particularly for his eccentricities of which he had many, THE ELECTRIC LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN doesn’t quite make for compelling entertainment.  Cumberbatch and Foy both give it their best shot, as they always do, but the film’s tone enters a downward spiral once Emily dies, going from delightfully quirky to gloomy to downright depressing.  Sharpe and Stephenson keep circling back to Louis’ fascination with the notion of “electricity”, which has both a positive and negative effect on him, but viewers may find that concept a hard one to latch onto as they watch Louis’ health and financial situation decline.  A documentary or docudrama where some time could have been spent discussing what Wain meant by “electricity”, or perhaps delving deeper into what his state of health may or may not have been, may have been a more effective way to tell this story.

THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (December 2nd).  It’s also available now on Amazon Prime Video.  I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did.  Alas, this one’s only for ardent Wain fans.

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