A biopic almost as eccentric as its cat-loving subject, this Victorian drama eschews convention in favour of something far wackier
Though a cradle-to-grave biopic about a quaint late-Victorian artist sounds, on paper, like a recipe for something aimlessly generic, made to be watched years down the line on ITV3, Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain makes it clear immediately that this is not just another costume drama. Bold stylistic choices, from a boxy aspect ratio to a refreshingly wacky use of bright lights and colours, separate it nicely from its genre peers and, though this eccentricity can sometimes work against the film as a whole, its rejection of traditional stuffiness is more than welcome.
Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a late-19th Century polymath, turning his hand to boxing, opera-writing, inventing electrical devices, and illustration – particularly illustrations of cats. These drawings swiftly became hugely popular and had an enormous impact on the UK, turning cats from pets of convenience, mainly used as pest-killers, into the whimsical companions we know today, but this success brought only limited reprieve to Wain, who lived a consistently difficult life. Struggling with anxiety, intermittent poverty, and possibly undiagnosed schizophrenia, his was an often tragic tale. Sharpe's script follows his various rises and falls, as he achieves worldwide celebrity without managing to escape the shadow of some squalid living conditions or his time spent institutionalised.
It gives Cumberbatch a lot to play with and, though this role is well within his comfort zone, he’s compelling here, unpredictable without dipping into anything too broad, Wain able to slow down in the company of either his cats or his wife Emily (Claire Foy). Foy matches Cumberbatch every step of the way, slightly more grounded but still charmingly singular, though Andrea Riseborough delivers a rare misfire performance as Wain’s pragmatic but shrill sister Caroline.
Sharpe has assembled quite the cast here – Wain’s other sisters are played by Aimee-Lou Wood, Stacy Martin, and Hayley Squires, while there are constant cameos from the likes of Nick Cave, Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi, and more – but only Cumberbatch and Foy really make an impression. Wain’s frequent familial conflicts make for far less interesting drama than either his painting work or his marriage, but we still get loads of it, especially towards a saccharine ending that really could have done with being shaved down by ten minutes.
When Wain and Emily are alone together, though, Electrical Life is a lot of fun, as the love they share transforms the world around them into a painted tableau of glorious sunshine and nature. Wain’s work was giddy and colourful, and so Sharpe makes sure his biopic is too, and gives plenty of screentime to Wain’s feline muses. It must have been hell to wrangle this many cats on a film set, but the results are worth it – you can’t stay mad at any of the film’s failings for long when it suddenly presents you with a friendly, saucer-eyed kitten trotting towards the camera.
Though both Sharpe’s direction and a lot of the performances end up feeling a bit mannered at times, it’s nice to see this kind of visual ambition and general sense of fun in what can be the most uninventive of genres. Releasing in the midst of awards season, Electrical Life is more likely to be a diverting curio than a major player (especially as Cumberbatch’s Oscar bid will certainly be Power of the Dog), but give it a chance and you’ll be rewarded with a cute-but-clever portrait of a quietly revolutionary artist.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is UK cinemas on 1 January.Where to watch