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Categorically, a historical biopic portrays the life of one of history’s great influencers, so there’s something refreshing about The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the story of an obscure artist who made a minor stir in Victorian England and early 20th century America, and was largely forgotten, except by collectors and obsessives. Wain, played by a Benedict Cumberbatch stripped of his charisma, was a gifted illustrator who eventually achieved minor fame—but very little fortune—for his beloved drawings of cats. There would be something admirable about the film’s relatively modest stakes if it weren’t constantly trying so hard to hide them.
Director and co-writer Will Sharpe paints Wain’s story like an Instagram post, using copious lens flares, whimsical characterizations, and psychedelic color filters that, when spread over every inch of the film, effectively gloss over Wain’s humanity. Instead, it turns him into a life-sized knick-knack from Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. The shame is that there’s so much humanity to work with. With a dead father and catatonic mother, the eccentric Wain is forced to become the unlikely breadwinner for himself and his five sisters, including the eldest (Andrea Riseborough), a taskmaster who brandishes a butcher’s knife as she stalks through the house barking orders. His life seems temporarily redeemed when he falls in love with the family’s beautiful governess (Claire Foy), but tragedy strikes the happy couple far too early into their partnership, and Wain’s schizophrenia, which runs in his family, begins to materialize.
At this point in the story, Wain makes friends with a kitten named Peter, the cat-alyst for his transformation into the world’s first painter of cats. As his wife points out, cats, up until this point, had been only worshipped or feared; Wain is “the first person to see they are, in fact, ridiculous.” Here, optimistic viewers will expect the film’s slight plot, scattered themes, and twee mise-en-scène to coalesce into something meaningful—perhaps a commentary on how little has changed since an era when society worshipped images of pets like graven idols but does nothing to care for its women, its mentally ill, or even its non-domesticated animals. Nope. Instead, the cats come and go in Wain’s life story, and Sharpe continues to bat at his plot like a colorful ball of yarn, never stringing it together to make a meaningful shape.
Still, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is hardly a catastrophe. Cumberbatch seems to relish the opportunity to shed his likeability and tendency to play to the camera; his Wain seems blissfully aware of the expectations of the world around him, letting the actor delve deep into his strangeness (a welcome contrast to his muted Strangeness). Meanwhile, Sharpe’s commitment to his mannered style is persuasive at times. He has a gift for image-making that leads to some wondrous standalone shots, especially involving man in the natural world, that linger in the mind long after the film has ended. There’s a sequence towards the end that, in an effort to put viewers inside the addled mind of its protagonist, creates a psychedelic sequence Gaspar Noé would be proud of.
Taken together, however, these moments are more exhausting than energizing. The film seems to think that layering beauty on top of pain is a compelling artistic statement, but it feels more like a parlor trick. Without a clear central conflict or meaningful point of view, Louis Wain plays more like a catalog of carefully curated moments that dazzle the eye but fail to cohere into a meaningful vision. You’ll find yourself working so hard to appreciate the effort that you don’t have any energy left to enjoy it.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain opens on Friday, Oct. 22, in theaters.