The Electrical Life of Louis Wain – Film Review
by Brian Merriman
Director – Will Sharpe
Writers – Simon Stephenson (screenplay by) (story by), Will Sharpe
Actor – Benedict Cumberbatch (Louis Wain), Claire Foy (Emily Richardson-Wain), Andrea Riseborough (Caroline Wain), Toby Jones (Sir William Ingram), Sharon Rooney (Josephine Wain), Aimee Lou Wood (Claire Wain)
British film does period costume drama so well and the filming of this eclectic screenplay by Sam Stephenson and Will Sharpe is sumptuous. It is so lavish, it undermines a little the plausibility that the Wain family were in hard times. The costumes, locations and props including a multi-seater car are exquisite.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Wain) revels in this eccentric role in a tour de force performance stretching over many decades. The Wain story, if you don’t already know, becomes familiar as the story unfolds. This is a true story of a tortured genius. He could paint with both hands, was an inventor, a boxer and he even wrote an opera. His father dies prematurely and as in Victorian times, Catholic Louis was the sole provider for his mother and five sisters. Though strapped for cash, they still could employ Miss Emily Richardson as a Governess for the three younger sisters, there being quite an age gap in the family.
The unfolding relationship between a magnificent Claire Foy (Emily) and Louis is beautifully played and photographed. Though it is brief, its presence remains central to Louis’s tormented story throughout. Schizophrenia plagues the family and, in a way, it is the vibrant electric underscore of this psychedelic story.
There are so many layers to the plot that modernisms sneak in and comfortably fit the treatment of this ‘peculiar romance’. Cumberbatch loves the ‘odd’ character roles and from his gangly (Cleese like) walk through the energy of his nightmares, ageing and art, he brings a playing range to the character that emotes and embeds our understanding of this nearly forgotten genius.
Wain was an unlikely trendsetter. He changed people’s ways of thinking about …cats. When Emily and Louis rescue ‘Peter’ the cat at a time of emotional crisis, ‘Peter’ opens up a whole new avenue of expression for Wain, one which enthralled those living in the drab Victorian industrial landscape. The highly influential ‘London Illustrated News’ was entranced by his colourful animated illustrations of cats, up until then, a working animal, portrayed by Wain with personality, humour, and in human lifestyles that elevated the rodent catcher to the exalted role of family pet. Cats never looked back.
His glorious illustrations were full of life and fun – they were his expression of the electricity of beauty. Emily advised that his addiction to the electricity present in pain and grief could be channelled to ensure we saw and experienced the beauty of our world. His paintings and illustrations became a transatlantic success when William Randolph Hearst took on the American franchise.
There are adult subjects galore in the screenplay, swiftly and delightfully handled in a series of beautifully sized episodes that fly by.
In his challenging latter years, the outcome is the least he deserved and it is comforting that his genius was compassionately acknowledged by his peers. Yet, there is almost a childlike quality to the rich presentation on screen. So much so, it is likely that long after its successful cinematic run is over, I can see this film programmed for many a Christmas season on television.
Wain is encouraged to look at the world to see its beauty. Look at this film…it is quite beautiful too.