We like to put things in neat little boxes, to label them. This includes movies as categorize such as comedy or drama or action or sci-fi or horror or whatever. Often however, as we all know, attempting to impart such a label is far too simplistic. So, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” may go down as a drama. But it isn’t. It might go down as a comedy, but it’s not that either. Tragedy? No. Science fiction? Not quite. It is undeniably biographical, but that doesn’t really tell you about the film except for the fact that it is, in some way, based on a real person. The movie is, in the end, so many things, and it’s not always for the best, but, at the very least, it contains multitudes.
Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role of cat artist Louis Wain and we witness his life, or snippets of it, across the span of roughly a half-century. We are provided with an omniscient, though perhaps not always honest, narrator (Olivia Colman), to take us through this life and we see many a big moment unfold – landing a job; meeting his future wife, Emily (Claire Foy); becoming famous; not earning a fortune; and a slow descent into delusion (maybe?).
Directed by Will Sharpe with a screenplay from Simon Stephenson, it is all rather magical. Or, perhaps, electrical is a better word for it. Sharpe has filmed the movie in a 4:3 ratio, adding to the sense of it being a period piece as well as offering the notion that what we are getting is not the full picture of a life, but rather vignettes. We are also, at some moments, seeing what is in Wain’s mind, be it horrifying or idyllic. When some of these last are presented that are nearly depicted as painted landscapes and are astounding.
What is less astounding is “Electrical Life” keeping the audience at a distance on too many occasions. We feel Wain’s tragedies and successes when the personal elements are at their peak (or nadir), but it is difficult to walk away from the movie with a sense of who Wain truly was and how he viewed the world. The picture—and the vignette nature contributes to this—is a sketch, not a detailed reproduction.
Over the course of the movie we hear Wain expound on his theory of electricity and how electricity functions and how it can be harnessed. It is something that crops up more than once, and even if the ideas seem to be scientifically inaccurate, there is a beauty expressed in Wain’s perceptions. There is a moment towards the end of the film when it all comes together, when those ideas are pushed through a prism and refracted into something brilliant. It is affecting.
It is also a moment that we would not get to if Cumberbatch didn’t keep the audience involved throughout. We may not always understand what is going on inside Wain’s head or how he relates to the world, but we always feel very deeply for him. We want happiness for him no matter how many tragedies are foisted upon his shoulders. Without Cumberbatch’s sensitive portrayal we wouldn’t stick with the film, it would be too heartbreaking.
Foy is quite wonderful as well, as is Andrea Riseborough as Caroline, the eldest Wain sister. We get to know too little of either Emily or Caroline (and less of the rest of the family), but both make their presence felt. Toby Jones appears as boss and later mentor/friend to Wain, adding to the affair as well.
In its exuberant moments, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” truly is dizzying. There is a speed at which the movie can move forward when it so chooses that makes one feel (forgive the metaphor) as though we have been zapped with electricity. Other moments have the opposite effect, as though all power has been cut from the affair. Fortunately, these are rare.
By the time the credits roll, one will be reaching for a phone to google Louis Wain’s cat pictures and to wonder if they have seen them before. They also might be reaching for a phone to try to figure out whether that really was Taika Waititi or Nick Cave or Richard Ayoade or Dorothy Atkinson in the film. The credits indicate that there is a non-zero chance that such guesses are correct.
So, there is no neat little box for “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” and watching the movie that feels right. If we are to believe what we have been shown, he is not a man whose life could ever be summed up in such a way. What we get then is something similar to the man himself – something touching and amusing and heartbreaking and at times uncertain.
There are worse things to be.
photo credit: Amazon Studios