I don’t know the work of Louis Wain, but once Will Sharpe’s film about the artist introduced his works in small portions before going full extravaganza in the final credits, I’m prepared to comply with the idea that he was a genius of image and color, predating the psychedelic tie-dye posters of the 60’s a half century before they became popular. His prolific images of bug-eyed cats frolicking, laughing and acting quite human have since become art treasures, and rightly so. They infuse the viewer with a sense of humor and whimsy, and as the film makes quite clear, probably kept Wain himself alive for years after sadness and madness took over his frenetic brain.
And frenetic is an apt description for the film itself. Rapidly trying to find a tone that alternates between oddly humorous and more serious minded biography, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes a bit for the film to find its footing.
We first meet Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a busy year yet again) as a young man struggling to make ends meet in 1880’s Victorian England. His life is chaotic, surrounded by five unwed sisters and a governess (Claire Foy) in a large house. It’s clear Wain suffers from some sort of condition, whether its ADHD or something more severe. Even though he can whip out a drawing within minutes for anyone who asks, he’s also painfully awkward and unable to maintain eye contact. As is the case for most artists, he’s much more concerned with his papers and drawings than any real social contact.
His talents land him a job as an illustrator for a magazine, where over time his drawings earn him a small following and “poverty wages” as his boss (Toby Jones) calls them. He also falls in love with the household governess, played in demure fashion by Foy. Naturally, Wain’s life has its tragic ups and downs, and Cumberbatch gives a strong performance that requires him to cry uncontrollably one minute and then become blithely lost in his world of cats the next.
But it’s these swings of emotion that ultimately dampen the overall impact of the film. The first half tumbles through a variety of tones, unsure whether its a comedy or a wide commentary on encroaching madness. In one scene, Wain flops about in the company pool like a hooked fish when everyone else just wants to mediate casually in the water. He’s a unique man of course, and the film wastes no time in exposing that.
Traveling on through his life until his death in 1939, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain improves some in its second half. The gut punches life serves him become more profound and the idea that Wain suffered from mental illness well before anyone understood how to care for such a person take on sympathetic weight. There’s even been a re-immersion of his art where modern day psychologists claim to see the progression of his illness.
In it’s simplest terms, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain plays best when it’s studying the sweet relationship between Foy and Cumberbatch. For everything else (including his belief that electricity can be guided like air gliding off a cat’s furry head), the film is marginally interesting. It’s nice to be introduced to a page of artistic history, but the film doesn’t make one want to look further.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth in select theaters on Friday October 22nd, including the Dallas and Plano Angelika locations. The film will begin streaming on Amazon Prime starting November 5th.