As we have learned from art and film history, most profoundly inspired and influential artists are also insane or at least unstable to an uncomfortable degree. From director Will Sharpe (Black Pond) comes the true story of British artist Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch), who came to prominence at the end of the 19th century for his surrealist paintings of cats, which he believed were as viable a house pet as dogs. While that might not seem strange today, at the time, cats were not considered housebound animals. But Wain’s works showed them to be adorable, fuzzy little lap beasts, which ultimately appealed to both children and adults alike. And while this influence and success should have made him not only famous but rich, he was terrible with money and spent most of his life deeply in debt, with only a brief time when he was also happy.
Narrated charmingly by Olivia Colman, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain gives us Wain’s life from living in crowded conditions with his mother and a multitude of unmarried sisters (including the authoritarian eldest, played by the great Andrea Riseborough). Some of the youngest require a tutor, so Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) is brought in, and naturally Wain is intrigued by not only her intelligence and charm, but also her ambition to paint as well. In addition to painting, Wain has a host of other interests, including the study of electricity and the mysterious, invisible way it connects us all (he believes cats conduct electricity better than most animals, which is why he’s drawn to them). He believes an understanding of electricity will lead to a better understanding of the world, humanity, and even how to settle the unstable condition of his own brain. At one point, I think he theorizes the possible benefits of shock therapy, without ever actually trying it out. But it’s his love for Emily that ultimately pulls him together and allows him to concentrate on his work, which includes his primary source of income—being the staff illustrator for a local newspaper, working for an editor played by Toby Jones.
But when tragedy befalls Wain, he is sent into a depression that he never truly recovers from for the rest of his life (which takes us into the 1930s). Cumberbatch gives us one of the quirkiest and most deliberate performances of his career, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that he’s a more bearable character when Foy is there to balance out the weird and glitchy. The film has a host of famous faces popping in for interesting cameos, including Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade, and Jamie Demetriou, but it’s Wain and his warped artistic mind that propel the story forward, even if it’s destined to go crashing into a brick wall. You can’t help but feel for the man, and the filmmaker’s efforts to allow us to glimpse into his sometimes delusional mind are both extraordinary and slightly unnerving.
The real reason to see The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is to marvel at Cumberbatch’s range in 2021. His performances in this film, The Courier, The Mauritanian, and the upcoming The Power of the Dog (which may feature his finest work to date) are so varied and risky that it’s difficult not to finally acknowledge that he’s one of the best actors working right now. And who the hell knows what he’s going to pull off in Spider-Man: No Way Home. He’s a performer I get genuinely thrilled to see in whatever he has going, and this may be his best year yet. Louis Wain may not be the strongest film of the bunch, but Cumberbatch is exceptional in it.
The film is now playing theatrically in select theaters, including the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
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