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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Jamie Demetriou, Aimee Lou Wood, Cassia McCarthy, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Indica Watson, Julian Barratt, Sharon Rooney, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Sophia Di Martino, Olivier Richters, Nick Cave, Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade and the voice of Olivia Colman.

Screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe.

Directed by Will Sharpe.

Distributed by Amazon Studios. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Screened for the 2021 Philadelphia Film Festival.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has an opening chyron which reads “This is a true story.” That is a fairly bold statement for a movie. Most biopics tend to couch that kind of claim, saying that they are “based on a true story.” No such timidity here. Louis Wain goes all in.

There are just a couple of problems with this. First of all, Louis Wain does not feel that true. I don’t know much about the subject of the film, but the storytelling here feels a bit stylized, a bit enhanced, a bit “based on.” Secondly, there is the much more basic question: Is this a story which needed telling?

Sadly, for the most part I tend to feel the answer to that question is no.

Louis Wain was once a rather famous illustrator, mostly known for his caricatures of cats which became quite popular during the Victorian era. In fact, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain claims that Wain was single-handedly responsible for making cats popular in Victorian England – which feels like a bit of a stretch, considering that cats were beloved in many ancient civilizations long before this story takes place.

Still, he was a beloved pop artist. He was also a terrible businessman and never made much money for his work, refusing to copyright his own art. However, at this point in history he is a rather obscure figure in the art world, much like the guy who first did a painting of dogs playing poker.

Wain also appears to have been quite insane – or at the very least massively eccentric – for much of his life.

The “Electrical Life” part of the title refers to a deeply held (and honestly somewhat confusing) philosophy which Wain held that all beings – humans, and cats, and everything else – were just a channeling of electrical energy. He was even essentially right and rather prescient in many of his beliefs, but the bizarre ways that he – or at least the movie – explains them often makes him come off looking like a bit of a lunatic.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a very good job in portraying Wain – or at least as good as the source material will allow him. As a young man, he feels like he has escaped from a Monty Python sketch, all repressed British mannerisms, eccentric behavior and silly walks. As he gets older, he becomes nearly catatonic, beaten down by loss, mental illness and the cruel Victorian medical system.

According to this film, one of the two great losses in Louis Wain’s life was the death of his first cat, which feels a little off dramatically. I am saying that as a life-long cat lover who knows full well how vital cats are to life and how hard it is to say goodbye to them. I have loved cats completely and selflessly, which is a strong, elemental emotion, but not necessarily a cinematic one.

And, frankly, for a film about a man who is defined by his love of cats, while there are many cats around in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, they are mostly relegated to the background. Cats are endlessly fascinating and entertaining – just check out all the videos on the internet today. So, if they are going to make a movie about the love of cats, perhaps more of the time could have been spent on watching cats just be cats, rather than dwelling in the dark corners of Louis Wain’s family problems, his romantic problems, his financial problems and his mental problems.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes a slightly odd and ultimately rather tragic story and tells it fairly well. However, most audiences will probably walk out wondering why this was a story they needed to hear.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: October 23, 2021.


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