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Film Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Director:    Will Sharpe

Cast:     Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Jamie Demetriou, Toby Jones, Hayley Squires, Sophia Di Martino, Stacy Martin, Kiki May, Taika Waititi, Aimee Lou Wood, Olivia Colman (narrator)

Rating:    M

Running Time:    111

Australian Distributor:    Amazon Prime / Studio Canal


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.

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 colours, 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 to craft art that makes him a household name.

Cumberbatch gives a predictably mannered performance as Wain. 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.

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.

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 electricity he brought to his life and those who enjoy his artworks. It’s a tremendously charming ode to the man himself.




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