Fresh off delivering the best and most unexpected performance of his career in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” Benedict Cumberbatch retreats to more familiar territory in a whimsical Victorian biopic that might as well be called “The Ridiculousness of the Cat.” Of course when it comes to the late 19th- and early-20th-century artist Louis Wain — whose adorable illustrations of big-eyed moggies effectively invented our modern understanding of felines as domestic friends — “ridiculousness” is meant with utmost affection. After all, Wain was nothing if not a ridiculous man himself, at least by the rigidly classist standards of his time.
An eccentric polymath who compensated for his lack of people skills with a savant-like gift for sketching animals (his talents as a pianist, a boxer, and a mad scientist were somewhat less impressive), Wain was the sort of person who would probably be diagnosed with everything from ADHD to Borderline Personality Disorder if he were alive today. But Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is far less concerned with the uncertain details of its subject’s mental health than with the warmth and whimsy he brought to the world in spite — or in large part because — of how differently he saw it.
“You are a prism through which the beam of life refracts,” his wife Emily (Claire Foy) tells him at one point, but Sharpe’s portrait is so determined to capture the full rainbow of Wain’s singular hues that it soon becomes a muddled soup of mismatched quirks. The result is a sweet but overstretched fable that ultimately amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a cat drawing: Cute, harmless, and quickly exasperating for anyone forced to stare at it for 111 minutes.
Cumberbatch is predictably excellent in the manic and mustached title role; perhaps too predictably so, as the actor’s pursed depictions of history-shifting oddballs (from Thomas Edison and Alan Turing to Julian Assange and The Grinch) are starting to blur together in a way that can make a man as sui generis as Louis Wain feel like someone we’ve seen before. But Louis’ gifts are modest and unusual enough to stand out. His defining superpower is an ability to draw anything in a matter of seconds — one pencil in each hand, their tips scribbling across the page with the precision of an inkjet printer.
It’s a talent he blithely displays to the editor of The Illustrated London News (Toby Jones as Sir William Ingram), a hard man nevertheless impressed enough to offer Wain a job. Alas, Louis is almost as bad with money as he is good with sketches and so — to the enormous chagrin of his eldest sister, Caroline, an anxiously delicate worrywart played by the ever-chameleonic Andrea Riseborough — he rejects the gig. A bitter pill to swallow considering Louis is the only man in a family teeming with underwritten women, and the Wains are facing a financial crisis of “Howards End” proportions. Louis begrudgingly reconsiders when Caroline explains she can’t afford a governess for their other siblings, but our hero’s frown is turned upside down the moment he lays eyes on the live-in hire.
The ensuing romance between Louis and the similarly off-kilter Emily would be awkward even if not for its scandal — he’s a “gentleman,” and she’s of the servile class — but there’s no getting in between two people so good at helping each other see the beauty that exists in this world. They get married despite the strong objections of Caroline and the other ladies of Wain manor (one of whom is played by the great Stacy Martin, wasted as a glorified extra), and in 1884 move into an adorable thatch cottage on a stretch of the British countryside that seems peeled from the pages of a fairy tale. On the same day that Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, the couple happen upon a mewling kitten in their backyard (they name him Peter), forever entwining Louis’ imminent grief with his love of cats in ways that Sharpe and Simon Stephenson’s script would rather not unpack. The same goes for Louis’ recurring nightmares, which appear to stem from a childhood boating incident of some kind.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” isn’t even half over by the time its margins start to grow soggy with sadness, leaving the long and erratic stretch of the film that follows Emily’s death to stumble through more than 25 years of solitude as Sharpe struggles to find enough story to justify its fanciful telling. The film is shot in fairy-tale 4:3 and riddled with creative flourishes that fail to compensate for the punctuated linearity of its plot (e.g., frequent light leaks and prismatic lens flares convey Wain’s heightened worldview, as does an enigmatically warbling score by Sharpe’s brother Arthur that makes better use of the theremin than any movie since “First Man”). “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” searches high and low for the animating spark its namesake imagines to be the lifeforce of all things — human, feline, or artistic.
The film is certainly easy on the eyes, even if its surface pleasures only take it so far. Storybook cinematography and enough kooky dutch angles to make Kenneth Branagh smile hold your gaze even before Louis starts to imagine that all of the people he meets have cat heads, while a narratively enervating trip to pre-war New York is redeemed by evocative digital backgrounds and a tracking shot that contains an electrical charge of its own. Sharpe finds renewed focus in Louis’ decline and eventual institutionalization, as vaguely Guy Maddin-esque visuals and subtitled cat dialogue (“I like jomping”) speak to the psychedelic genius of Wain’s later work. And not for nothing, but at a time when all movies are seemingly required to include cameos by either Richard Ayoade or Taika Waititi, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is the rare work bold enough to make room for them both.
There’s another exquisite and far more unexpected cameo waiting for audiences in the final minutes. “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is the kind of film in which every new bit of flair calls further attention to the weak foundation underneath. At a certain point, the die is cast to the degree that you might start hoping for Sharpe to double down on kitschy surprises. Why not spice up Louis’ trip to New York by having him run into Cumberbatch’s Thomas Edison from “The Current War?” Perhaps they would have more to say to each other than either of their respective biopics have to say about them.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. Amazon Prime will release it in theaters on Friday, October 22. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, November 5.