We’re heading full-tilt into awards season, where Hollywood’s best and brightest studios begin to roll out the annual procession of prestige dramas gunning for a sizeable trophy haul when the annual galas kick off in earnest at the beginning of next year. Suffice to say, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (which comes to Prime Video this Friday, November 5) is far from the last biopic you’ll be seeing this year, but it’s difficult to imagine another one coming along that’s quite as unique.
Focusing on the whirlwind life of the titular artist, aspiring inventor and all-round eccentric, co-writer and director Will Sharpe opts to forego the standard biographical drama route of treating the proceedings with the utmost seriousness, but in doing so he drenches almost every single one of the film’s 111 minutes in whimsy that borders on the saccharine.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with a movie that leans into the eccentricities of its protagonist, and Wain was certainly an off-kilter fellow. Debates continue to rage to this day about the diagnosis that saw him committed to an institution as a schizophrenic, but even before that he was well-known for making terrible business decisions and even worse investments, all while enduring a torturous home life that saw his overbearing eldest sister pull the strings long before he loses the love of his life to cancer.
It’s a very tricky tonal balance to pull off without leaning too hard in either direction, and Sharpe just about manages it up to a point. That’s largely due to a pair of fantastic performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, who give everything they have to their roles. Cumberbatch in particular goes through the emotional wringer, and while there’s plenty of mirth to be drawn from the more bizarre aspects of Wain’s life, the actor never forgets to root everything firmly in the reality of a man who regularly suffers from crippling social anxieties that can never seem to pull his life together, despite gaining some levels of fame as the man who exclusively draws pictures of anthropomorphic cats.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain covers almost the artist’s entire adult life, and a lot happened to him during that period to put it lightly, so the narrative is forced to maintain a relentlessly brisk pace that it doesn’t always justify. The first act introduces and establishes his family, with Foy’s Emily Richardson welcomed in to a home that’s already packed to bursting point by the seven siblings.
Olivia Colman’s narration hints that perhaps the Wains wouldn’t have suffered as much as they did had society not forced the unreliable Louis to act as head of the family, but it’s never really explored much further than the voiceover. When Emily finds herself diagnosed with a terminal illness, the now-married couple adopt a stray cat called Peter, and it ends up changing Louis’ life forever.
That’s the abridged version, which quickly blossoms into an obsession that finds his work becoming widely popular across the country, but because of his inability to retain the copyrights, he remains destitute and in poverty. Once Claire passes away, the story seems to grind to a halt as if it’s unsure of how to proceed now that the driving force of the title character’s life and the story itself is out of the picture, so instead Sharpe decides to gun through the rest of Wain’s life in rapid succession.
The old age makeup used to depict Cumberbatch towards the end of Wain’s life is less than convincing to put it lightly, but it also doesn’t stop to take a breath so we can gain a measure of just how much of a whirlwind his final years were. He sets off to America, where Taika Waititi cameos as newspaper magnate Max Kase, but then he’s back in the United Kingdom before that section of his life is explained in any great detail.
He’s found abandoned and alone in a mental hospital by a man he’d met years earlier, and before we know it we’re barreling through the fascinating later years of his life that saw figures like H.G. Wells and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin step in to campaign for a transfer to a facility more befitting a man of Wain’s immense talents and stellar reputation.
A quirky, peculiar and primary-colored period piece with a unique score, several top quality performances, a touch of romance, plenty of tragedy and an incredible true-life tale that’d be scarcely believable if it hadn’t actually happened has all of the ingredients to trouble the major awards bodies on paper, but it always feels as though that little spark is missing to take things to the next level.
There’s a lot going on but not enough time to tell it in full, so the back half of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain suffers from the desire to cram everything into the running time, which isn’t ideal for a movie that’s already been sagging since Foy went out of the picture. That’s not to say it’s a wasted opportunity, because it’s a light, breezy and often humorous look at a man who managed to find fame despite being plagued by failure almost every step of the way, and by the time the credits roll you’ll be fascinated to learn more about a complex, haunted, tragic and wildly unique individual.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a biopic every bit as off-kilter and bizarre as the protagonist, but despite all of the whimsy and eccentricities, it finds itself missing a spark.