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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) – Review: A Visually Impressive Biopic By Director Will Sharpe

October 20, 2021

Quick thoughts: Grade – B – The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a visually impressive film that goes out of its way to avoid becoming a traditional Oscar-bait biopic. The performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, and Andrea Riseborough are excellent as always, and they help add balance to a narrative whose tone bounces between whimsical, melancholy, and sentimental. 

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain focuses on the trials and tribulations of Louis Wain, a prolific artist who drew thousands of anthropomorphized cats during his time on this earth (1860 – 1939), and helped popularize the notion that the rat catchers could actually be pretty great pets. His brightly colored and often surreal works of art circled the globe, and due to him not copyrighting his pictures, he didn’t receive the money or adulation that he deserved. In an interview with Deadline, Cumberbatch, who plays Wain, considers him to be “a quiet hero,” and BAFTA nominated director Will Sharpe made the movie about him because “I think you don’t necessarily have to slay dragons or fly spaceships to be a hero. What drew me to Louis Wain was his humanity, more than anything else, and the challenges that he overcame, whether they were personal or to do with his mind, were huge.” For once, it’s nice to focus on an underdog who didn’t change the world, and instead made many people realize how cute cats are.

Shot in a striking 4:3 aspect ratio, which creates the feeling that you’re looking at a painting in a museum, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is wonderful to look at as cinematographer Erik Wilson showcases every trick he learned from his experiences working on Submarine, Tyrannosaur, Paddington 1 & 2, and several Pumpkinhead horror films. There are impressive dolly shots that must’ve kept the grips busy as they needed to lay hundreds of feet of dolly track, and static shots that know when to let the inherent silliness of a nonplussed bathroom goer wash his hands whilst Wain kisses his future wife Emily (Claire Foy), tell the story. The production and costume design are sumptuous as well, as Oscar nominee Suzie Davies (Mr. Turner, The Courier), and Oscar winner Michael O’Connor (Dredd, Jane Eyre, Ammonite) load the film with vibrant blue, orange, and red set decorations and costumes that become more muted as Wain loses his wife, deals with mental illness, and finds himself alone in a nursing home later in life.

Based on Wain’s illustrations, it’s understandable that the film starts off very whimsically, as Wilson’s camera follows Wain as he goes about his daily life that involves boxing (he basically just gets punched a lot), dealing with his five sisters, and drawing portraits in the blink of an eye, as he’s able to use both hands for his illustrations. His initial meeting with Emily is cuter-than-cute, as she’s hiding in a closet to get away from the insanity of the Wain home, and they immediately bond, and eventually get married. After moving to the country, and adopting a cute cat, things go south quickly as Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and the film loses its whimsy, and focuses on Wain’s mental downfall. It’s a jaring switch in tone, which once again makes sense considering the artist, but it makes the film feel unevenly structured and disjointed as the mood changes immediately. What follows is Wain’s extremely good-looking decline into dementia, and several beautiful looking moments involving running in the rain and massive storms that sink the biggest of ships. 

In the end, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is worth a watch because of the beautiful visuals and its desire to not come across as another stock biopic. There is beauty to behold, and if you handle the film’s decline into sadness, it’s worth a watch.

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