The Electrical Life of Louis Wain Review – IGN
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is in select theaters and will debut on Amazon Prime Video on Nov. 5.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has little by way of coherent theme or insight, but it’s made worthwhile by occasional visual sparks and a fantastic lead performance. A biopic front-loaded with zaniness, it creates a curious allure around its subject — the late 19th and early 20th century cartoonist Louis Wain, known for his colorful sketches of wide-eyed anthropomorphic cats radiating electricity — though its narrative and aesthetic shortcomings boil down to its inability to keep up with the man playing him, Benedict Cumberbatch, who delivers such a madcap yet fine-tuned performance that he swallows the production whole.
A faded color grade applied to bright hues and vivid production design, coupled with a 4:3 frame, gives the appearance of an old photograph. The picture, however, is anything but still. For the first half hour, director Will Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Wilson elicit laughs through their framing and blocking alone, carefully composing wide-angle tableaus of Wain timidly navigating his crowded home and his five boisterous sisters. The oldest and most high-strung among them, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), rests on a knife’s edge; her sudden outbursts make for an amusing contrast to Wain’s reserve, but Riseborough’s frayed performance imbues even her most comical moments with humanity. Caroline is, ultimately, concerned with the household finances, and Wain seems less than capable of negotiating a higher salary, but his new illustrator gig at a London newspaper is an opportunity all the same.
To get the job, the ambidextrous Wain impresses editor William Ingram (Toby Jones) with a quickfire drawing using both his hands. He resembles an orchestra conductor when he creates his lowbrow caricatures, a grandiose undertaking that demands intense focus and leaves him with little spare attention for social cues (or for much of anything else). He moves swiftly from one task to the next, whether sketching a raging bull up close (leaving his clothes messy and his nose bloody) or taking boxing classes for which he’s clearly ill suited (the result is similar). However, his attention is finally snatched by his sisters’ quick-witted and attractive new governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), for whom Wain is willing to expose his physical and emotional vulnerabilities, despite expecting to be reviled.
From there on out, the snappy comedy (anchored by Olivia Colman’s sardonic narration) finds itself occasionally interrupted by more drawn-out, serious moments, which the film can’t seem to fully balance — it rarely re-adjusts its awkward, wide-angled framing for scenes which aren’t meant to be funny. It also begins to lose itself to the typical hallmarks of the Hollywood biopic, especially its need to cram as many life events as possible into its 111-minute runtime, as if hitting every section on a subject’s Wikipedia page were a contractual requirement. It moves swiftly from comedy to tragedy and back, and while the tonal swings aren’t jarring in and of themselves, the result is a film that doesn’t quite know what it’s about, even though its narrator insists on themes and emotional ideas which rarely manifest on screen.
The real Wain’s artistic genius went hand in hand with an apparent mental illness (schizophrenia may have run in his family), and while his pivot to cat lover is framed sincerely, the more troubling elements of his story feel awkwardly placed. In an era of electrical inventions, Wain’s delusional take on electricity is more ethereal — he believes it to be a mysterious spiritual force radiated by living beings — which takes hold not only in gorgeous illustrations, but in ill-advised conversations which reveal his steady decline. The movie is unable to shake its whimsical tone even when things get dour, and so Wain’s story occasionally feels farcical in presentation. It’s anything but a farce — Wain himself is presented endearingly — but rare are the moments when the visual and emotional distance established in the first half hour are subverted or overcome (except for a few instances when colors bleed into each other, and the visual fabric briefly takes on the same psychedelic quality of which Wain speaks).
However, despite its malformed narrative, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is saved by a firecracker performance from Cumberbatch, whose gaunt appearance and grandfatherly smile radiate gentleness, but whose electric energy shocks the film to life. His Wain is a man who hops up staircases with a cartoonishly feline posture, whose hair looks like it’s been zapped by static, and whose limbs feel charged by lightning strikes. He feels like an embodiment of Wain’s work, and watching him traipse through space is fascinating all on its own; it’s as if he’s been cut out from an early Charlie Chaplin comedy filmed on a hand-cranked camera at an unsteady frame rate, and spliced into a world which was shot at the standard 24fps. His movements feel as if they flicker, and his limbs seem to travel just a little too fast. In the most cinematic way possible, he doesn’t belong.
Cumberbatch plays Wain in several different decades, which means he also ends up in an old-man wig and prosthetics (his appearance slowly ages into his already world-weary performance, rather than him having to age into the makeup). The film isn’t able to fully shoulder the weight of Wain’s twilight years — after a sped-through middle portion that hits more factual beats than emotional ones, it suddenly introduces a disconnected tale of regret — but Cumberbatch is nonetheless able to warp the movie around him using a delicate balance of vacant stares and piercing self-pity, which grow so naturally from the rest of his performance that it almost feels as if this has been the central point all along. It hasn’t, which is why the actor’s work feels so magical here (it is, essentially, a narrative life raft).
The minor characters with whom Wain crosses paths are played by a slew of well-known comedic performers, including Adeel Akhtar (Four Lions), Richard Ayoade (The I.T. Crowd), and Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit), but few of these actors leave any lasting impact despite the range of talent on display. Perhaps this, in and of itself, is an indictment of its inability to stir emotions, let alone its failure to capture Wain’s increasingly unstable point of view.
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It brings to mind a similar biopic from 2018, Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, in which Willem Dafoe plays painter Vincent van Gogh during some of the most troubled years of his life. A more focused story gives way to aesthetics that envelope you both within van Gogh’s crumbling psyche and within his artistry — two inseparable facets of his outlook, which Schnabel weaves intrinsically together. In contrast, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain features only occasional flourishes that hint at these ideas, but as largely separate forces that only happen to be similar in appearance. The overlap between how Wain sees the world and how that world manifests in his cat paintings is limited to superficial details, even though several characters (including the omniscient narrator) frequently comment on Wain’s emotional relationship to his work and the pain that drives it. This relationship rarely comes to the fore until things are winding down, and most of the story is in our rearview.
The film clearly knows what it wants to be. It frequently telegraphs its emotional goals through spoken words, but apart from Cumberbatch’s fantastically strange performance, it seldom hits these targets.