Many artists are never appreciated in their time; others get the appreciation, but little of the money and fame. The latter is definitely true of early 20th-century painter Louis Wain, the subject of Will Sharpe’s delightfully eccentric The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Benedict Cumberbatch may well get more acclaim for his villainous turn in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, also playing at TIFF; but his wounded, complicated work here also deserves attention.
The sole male child of an all-female family, Wain puttered around turn-of-the-century England pursuing his passions for everything from patents for electrical devices to boxing. But it’s his innate talent as an illustrator that grants him notoriety, especially after he turns to the drawing of cats after he and his wife Emily (Claire Foy) find one and bring it into their home (they name the little fella Peter).
He’s deeply interested in their quirks and eccentricities; his paintings range from the naturalistic to the surreal, painting them with big colors, bold eyes, and sometimes engaged in anthropomorphic activities like cricket or wearing clothes. And, when Emily falls terminally ill, he turns to their curious patterns (the “electricity” that moves between living beings) to craft art that makes him a household name.
As Wain, Cumberbatch gives a predictably (but effectively) mannered performance. Like a certain detective before him, he sticks out like a sore thumb in any environment, his long limbs and clipped, stammering speech making him both sweet and off-putting in equal measure. But Cumberbatch finds the nuances in Wain’s eccentricities without turning him into a caricature; with Emily, especially, Wain slows down, grows more grounded, and finds a measure of peace. (It’s an equilibrium that, naturally, will be disrupted when Emily finally succumbs to her illness.)
Wain was an incredibly strange and fascinating figure, so it stands to reason that Sharpe’s adaptation of Simon Stephenson’s script is suitably drenched in surrealistic style. Paddington 2 cinematographer Erik Wilson builds a world somewhere between a Beatrix Potter storybook and Wain’s own vibrant paintings, squeezing their subject’s charmed view of the world into a cheekily period-appropriate 4:3 aspect ratio.
Arthur Sharpe’s score is suitably carnivalesque, and cameos from folks like Nick Cave (as H.G. Wells!) and Taika Waititi build on the film’s self-professed giddiness. It’s an approach that could either delight viewers or send them running for the hills: your tolerance for twee must be this high to ride this ride.
But the Burtonesque winks work to contrast Wain’s frenzied naivete with the innate tragedies of his life — from his doomed romance with Emily (Foy proves a wonderful match to Cumberbatch’s energy) to the fact that he forgot to copyright his famous paintings, leaving him penniless and unable to support his sisters even as his art changes Britain’s attitudes toward cats altogether.
What’s more, Emily’s death coincides with the rise of Wain’s own mental illness, sending Cumberbatch’s Sherlockian patter into hyperdrive in the film’s latter half. Before long, it’s not just his harried sisters (including Andrea Riseborough as the eldest sister, frustrated at her brother’s irresponsibility) who are worried about him. It’s his boss (Toby Jones), his friends, and even Olivia Colman as the film’s droll, faceless narrator.
Even in its darkest, most bittersweet moments, Sharpe never lets up on the film’s aggressive style, merely calibrating it so the 110% energy every element is sending to the screen reflects Wain’s growing schizophrenia. He sees cats’ faces on the heads of people, has visions of drowning depicted in the narrow iris of early silent filmmaking, and one late sequence feels like the Stargate sequence from 2001… only, you know, made of cats.
Still, while Wain himself ended his life penniless, holed up in a mental hospital where he’d be forgotten about until friend discovered him a year later, Sharpe’s film folds those tragedies into the broader joy and, shall we say, electricity he brought to his life and those who enjoy his artworks. It’s a tremendously charming ode to the man himself, and the cats he loved (and, by extension, made us love).
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release The Electrical Life of Louis Wain in theaters October 22nd, 2021 and on Prime Video November 5th, 2021.