starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough
screenplay by Simon Stephenson & Will Sharpe
directed by Will Sharpe
by Walter Chaw Will Sharpe's The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is not quite the sentimental, broadly-appealing quirk-fest you might be fearing, largely because it has a strong sense of its own absurdity and maybe even a respect for how tired we are of this crap. Though it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, the patron saint of biopics about iconoclasts like Louis Wain, its most valuable player is, as is so often the case with her, Claire Foy. She plays Emily Richardson, nanny for the younger Wain sisters and, after a funny courtship, the happily-ever-after'd Mrs. Wain. This is a bit of a scandal, their nuptials, because Louis is a gentleman and Emily is working-class, but they're happy, and while they remain childless, they do adopt a cat. That's unusual, since housecats weren't really a thing in Victorian England. So infatuated are the Wains with their fur-baby that Louis, an inventor and illustrator and maybe a genius, starts drawing cats doing people things, partly to pay the bills and partly to distract himself from the fact that Emily is dying of breast cancer. Another complication? Louis is so hopeless at managing his affairs that he's neglected to copyright his paintings, and a cottage industry of Wain's cats springs up without benefiting him in the slightest.
It's a good story but not enough for a feature film. The hardest reviews to write are the ones for movies that are completely adequate. I've laboured more over these few hundred words than I have over entire books. Part of the problem is that the film isn't about anything other than what it's about: Louis is neurodivergent in some way, though the filmmakers don't really address that beyond this making him an interesting case study. Louis marries out of his class, but indeed this is not a treatise on class issues in the UK. Nor is it about copyright laws or the exploitation of the artist, either. (Indeed, Louis's publisher/benefactor (Toby Jones) is surpassingly kind and indulgent.) And it's not about how there isn't a social safety net for the mentally ill, because although Louis ultimately finds himself institutionalized, it's through the agency of people doing their state-appointed duties that he manages a soft landing. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is absolutely literal and there's nothing wrong with that--except that it's exceptionally boring no matter how entertaining it might be in flashes.
The question, then, is who is this movie for? Well, it's for people who aren't terribly demanding about what they watch, whether by habit or through circumstance. If you're looking for something to play as background to whatever else you're doing (cleaning, surfing, writing reviews of other movies), well, have I got the aural wallpaper for you. It's for people who would like to think they're learning history but don't want to read a book or watch a documentary--and it's for fans of Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, who will definitely see both of them dressed nattily in period attire and acting entertainingly, as is their vocation. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a perfectly-functioning, self-contained perpetual-motion machine. It makes the same impact today as it would have ten years ago or twenty years from now. Tied to nothing, it lacks the buoyancy to fly anywhere, anyway. The picture will be forgotten, discovered as a pleasant trifle and perhaps recommended to an elderly relative when they ask what they should do to count the clock that tells the time, and forgotten again. That's what it's for. And it's good at it.