THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021), an original Prime Video movie, is an elegant and colorful bio pic of Louis Wain, a 19th century English artist famous for his drawings of cats. Wain is played here by Benedict Cumberbatch.
And Cumberbatch is the reason you want to see this one. He delivers a great performance as he always does, although truth be told, Claire Foy is equally as good as Wain’s wife Emily, but she is in the film far less than Cumberbatch. Still, these two powerful performances carry this movie, which is a good thing, because the rest of the movie is rather uneven.
Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a kind soul and a bit of an odd duck. As depicted in this movie, he’s definitely on the spectrum, possibly schizophrenic or autistic, but one thing that is indisputable is he is an extraordinary artist and can sketch animals in seconds. In 1881, his father dies, and Louis is left to provide for his ailing mother and five sisters. He secures a full-time position as an artist for a major English newspaper, as its editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) is fascinated by Wain’s work. Over the years, Sir William serves as a mentor for Wain and remains a constant friend throughout his life.
The family also hires a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to help care for the children. Emily and Louis instantly share a connection, and not too long afterwards, they fall in love and get married, which causes a stir since Emily is not of the same social class as Louis. The two share a wonderful life and inspire each other to create art as they both see the world the same way. It’s also during this time that they find a stray cat and welcome it into their home, which begins Louis’ obsession with drawing cats.
But when Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer, their magical life comes to an end. After Emily’s death, Louis struggles to keep himself together, and from here on out his life is one tragedy after another, but he finds that the harder and more horrific his life becomes, the more brilliant and vibrant his cat drawings become. He is able to turn pain into art which while providing the world great beauty, drives his own mental health deeper into despair.
The “electrical” in the film’s title refers to Louis’ unique take on electricity. He views it as something more than just a mysterious power source for lights. He saw it as a power source for people, something that could be harnessed artistically, and he would have electric moments where he would feel the electricity and use that power to create his art. Emily was one of the few people who understood what he meant by this. As a fiction writer, I can’t deny that when I am in that “zone” where words fly easily, it does feel like an outside force like electricity has entered my brain, because often I write things which I will read later and say to myself, “I wrote that?” so it’s a concept that I definitely understand.
As I said, while I enjoyed THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it is a rather uneven film. I definitely enjoyed the first half more than the second. The first half of the movie which depicts first the courtship and then the marriage of Louis and Emily is lively, entertaining, and fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy share a warm chemistry and really bring these two characters and their love for each other to life. When describing the first half of this movie, words like “delightful” and “charming” come to mind.
But once Emily falls ill and eventually passes, the entire tone of the film changes, as Louis is assaulted by one mishap after another, some small, others tragic. And this part goes on for quite a while, and it’s simply not as satisfying as the first half of the movie.
And while the screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe, who directed, does a nice job depicting Louis Wain the man, one thing the film surprisingly does not do is offer much insight at all into the cat drawings. I mean, the audience gets to see plenty of these drawings, but no light is shed on Wain’s thinking behind them, and perhaps this is so because we might not know his thinking behind them, but the film doesn’t offer anything that speaks to this other than that Wain can draw cats and here are the drawings. There’s also not much insight into his relationship with cats. So, if you love cats, you might enjoy this movie, but I would argue that strangely cats really aren’t featured all too prominently here.
What is featured is yet another tremendous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. He is the reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. He portrays Wain as a stand-up decent man, and his initial awkward attempts to woo Emily are fun to watch. Later, as Wain becomes more and more haunted by his own mental demons, Cumberbatch captures this part of the man as well. The make-up here is also topnotch, and Cumberbatch looks believable as Wain as both a young man and a very old man later in the movie.
The last time I saw Cumberbatch, he played Greville Wynne in THE COURIER (2020), and he provided another fascinating performance as another real-life figure. I enjoyed THE COURIER somewhat more than I did THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, but in terms of acting, I thought Cumberbatch was even better here as Louis Wain than he was as Greville Wynne. And every time Wain mentioned electricity, I couldn’t help but think of another amazing biographical performance by Cumberbatch, as Thomas Edison in THE CURRENT WAR (2017). Benedict Cumberbatch seems to excel at playing these historical figures.
Claire Foy is also wonderful as Emily Richardson. She plays Emily as quite the eccentric character in her own right, the perfect match for Louis, and as I said, Foy and Cumberbatch are electric together. Had Foy been in this entire movie, I’d list her right up there with Cumberbatch for being the main reason to see this one, and up to a point she is, but her character dies midway through.
Foy is a wonderful actress, known for her work on the TV show THE CROWN (2016-2020), but she’s turned in some memorable movie performances as well. She stood out as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet in FIRST MAN (2018), as well as in the Steven Soderbergh thriller UNSANE (2018). I first noticed her as the fiery “girl” in the Nicholas Cage action/fantasy/horror movie SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011).
Veteran character actor Toby Jones adds solid support as newspaper editor Sir William Ingram. Jones has been in a gazillion films and adds quality support to each and every one of them. And I always like to point out that he’s the son of actor Freddie Jones, who got his start in Hammer Films, and debuted as one of the more memorable Frankenstein “monsters” ever, in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) with Peter Cushing.
Director Will Sharpe achieves mixed results here. At times, this one looks like an authentic period piece, while at others, the sets look cheap and backdrops phony. Now, I realize this may have been on purpose, to match the look of Wain’s drawings, but I can’t say I was convinced that this was the case. Had the entire movie owned this look, then I would have bought that premise more readily, but as it stands, it doesn’t. The film also doesn’t do the best job balancing its two moods, light and fun during the first half, and dark and tragic during its second.
But most disappointing of all is the lack of insight on Wain’s famous cat sketches. Little time is spent on what was going through Wain’s mind when he sketched those cats or his feelings towards cats in general. And no light is shed whatsoever on how he drew his art. There’s no depiction of any artistic process. The one time the film does this is Wain’s advice to Emily about her own art, where he tells her that there’s really only one rule to drawing, and that is to look. That is a notable moment in the movie, but it needed more of these.
While I did enjoy THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it did struggle to hold my interest the longer it went on. Keeping it together and the main reason to see this movie is the fabulous work of Benedict Cumberbatch with his portrayal of Louis Wain.
The first half of THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN is indeed electrical. The second half barely purrs.