THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN
Directed by: Will Sharpe
Written by: Simon Stephenson, Will Sharpe
Featuring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones,
Adeel Akhtar, Phoebe Nicholls
Louis Wain is an eccentric and fragile Victorian gentleman who lives with his five sisters and has had to become the ‘man of the house’ after the death of his father. The only problem is Louis, despite being an accomplished illustrator, has so many ideas and schemes he cannot stick to one and the most profitable one at that. His sister Caroline, the house matriarch, decides to hire a Governess for the other girls and it is from this point that Louis finds some focus as the fascinating Miss Richardson starts to garner his attention. From this point on Louis’ life and the life of those around him will never be the same.
Louis Wain was a real illustrator in Victorian England who created celebrated images of cats in anthropomorphised poses over many years. He had a scandalous (at the time) marriage to his sisters’ governess, he had mental health problems and ended his days, albeit still artistically productive, in mental health hospitals. This much is true.
To make a film on this topic could result in a desperately depressing tragic tale of a talented but highly ‘challenged’ artist. Instead, Will Sharpe, himself exceptionally talented with his own mental health challenges, brings us a film that can be described the same as Wain’s own paintings, they were cats but not like real cats. This is more a comic-tragic almost fairy tale story of a real man’s struggles.
Both sad and tragic as the story progresses, we get an uplifting love story where friendship wins over circumstance. Laced with humour and a love for life in all its hues Louis Wain is there to be enjoyed in every way.
Benedict Cumberbatch is on the top of his game and in his comfort zone playing a slightly out-of-place eccentric who is basically naïve but decent. Paired with Claire Foy who is pitch perfect as Emily Richardson his paramour who can see nothing but the beauty in Wain’s life – although if we are fussy, she is way too young for someone supposedly ten years older.
Sharpe and writer Simon Stephenson certainly do not shy away from the challenges Wain and to a lesser extent his sister, Marie, suffered despite some comedic whimsy. The film is better for this showing that despite the eccentric whimsy there were very real world and tough problems for Wain and those around him.
Andrea Riseborough is given the toughest job and it is a role I have seen in a lot of biopic-style films recently, a traditional ‘shrew’ character. I am guessing this is a dramatic conceit to give the audience a character a role as a ‘baddy’ or the ‘real world voice’ of the film but it seems unfortunate that generally it is always a woman, in this case the older sister but more often than not a wife. Seems a bit lazy and although the tale tries to redeem Caroline near the end, she is wholly unsympathetic throughout, perhaps understandable but it is a well-worn narrative.
Ably supported by stellar support and cameos the film focuses mainly on Cumberbatch as Wain as he navigates his wobbly way through the world, it would remiss not to mention the always magnificent Toby Jones as the skinflint but ultimately a loyal friend to Louis Wain, Sir William Ingram, and the equally ‘good in every role he plays’ Adeel Akhtar who bookends the film perfectly.
Will Sharpe has made it clear in interviews that he wanted to make the film from a modern viewpoint, so you get bad language from Miss Richardson and actors of ability regardless of their heritage in supporting roles, which, surprise, surprise is a source of complaint with some viewers. There is a little girl selling newspapers on the street – oh my goodness the film is ruined. Some people are not white, in this day and age can we just watch an enjoyable film and not worry about skin colour.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a love note to a man who had difficult problems, a rare talent and imagination that lived in a time when he would not have been so sympathetically treated as the makers of this film.
Best to enjoy what you see and imagine him walking into art with Emily and Peter.