fri 15/10/2021

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain review - visually arresting biopic | reviews, news & interviews

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain review - visually arresting biopic

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain review - visually arresting biopic

Will Sharpe’s portrayal of the fin-de-siècle cat painter, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, offers a visual spectacle

On its surface, a biopic of a late-Victorian artist starring big British talents including Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrea Riseborough and Claire Foy, sounds like typical awards fare for this time of year.

Will Sharpe, best-known for directing the dark TV comedy Flowers (starring Olivia Coleman who is on narrating duties for this film), and drama series Giri/Haji, offers just that.

Charting the tragic life of Louis Wain, an artist-cum-inventor who was plagued with mental health problems, Sharpes film has a magical, surrealist, Dickensian quality. Much like Armando Iannuccis David Copperfield, there is an exaggerated Victorianism, and Sharpe leans heavily into the visuals to paint a portrait of the artist through his own eyes. 

We first meet Wain (Cumberbatch) as a youthful eccentric, moving frantically through the streets of London, his mind frenetic with ideas - none of which are likely to earn him any money. He has some wild theories on the nature of electricity, but his gift is in speedily producing illustrations for the citys leading rag, The London Illustrated News, a job he reluctantly takes to support his many sisters, including the matriarchal Caroline (Riseborough). Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy in Louis Wain biopic The bohemian Wain household is a wonder to behold - a dimly-lit, oak-panelled haven for artists, where the sisters run riot in a fever of creative endeavours. They are watched over by the newly appointed governess Emily (Foy on top form) who, much like Louis, doesn’t care a jot for societal conventions. 

It is Emily and Louis who are at the heart of Sharpes film - two oddballs that are kindred spirits. Together they flee society to the safety of Hampstead after getting hastily married. Their love story is touchingly rendered, with beautiful scenes that carefully shift register between tragedy and joy. Sharpe is in his element in these moments, crafting rich, painterly tableaux. But their love is not to last. Out of tragedy Wain discovers his gift for producing surrealist, anthropomorphised cat paintings that would go on to adorn almost every front parlour in Britain. 

Sharpe demonstrates visual ambition and flair but is held back by the true-life arc of Wains life. As his mental faculties decline so does the hook of the drama, doing little to reinvent the story of the tragically-doomed artist who struggles to keep his genius in check with his madness. 

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a celebration of English eccentricity that manages to avoid being quaint, but cannot escape the conventions of the biopic. Yet it remains a visually surprising and delightful piece of art, not unlike Wains illustrations. 

  • The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is released by StudioCanal in cinemas in early 2022 and played as part of TIFF

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