In Review

Film Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Biopic of the cat artist starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy

“The artist Louis Wain led, by any reckoning, a bizarre life,” said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. Wain became wildly popular in late Victorian England for his “lovably anthropomorphised” paintings of cats. But, stricken with grief by the early death of his wife (his sisters’ much older governess) and worn down by the need to provide for his widowed mother and five sisters, he spent the last two decades of his life in a psychiatric hospital in Tooting, his life and estate in tatters. 

In this “odd, intrepid biopic”, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain as a classic “Cumberbatch type”: “distractable, eccentric, brilliant and sad”, while Claire Foy gives a “lovely performance” as his wife, Emily; Wain’s unstable sister is played, rather less successfully, by Andrea Riseborough. It’s a “comic yet melancholy” piece of “oddball-indie cinema” with enjoyably daft touches – cats’ miaows are translated using subtitles – and cameos from the likes of Olivia Colman and Richard Ayoade. 

Whatever you think of Wain’s saucer-eyed “cat pics”, this “hyper-energetic” biopic is a bit relentless, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. Director Will Sharpe seems to be trying to convey the chaos and creativity of Wain’s “restless mind”, but he overdoes it by loading the film with playful tricks, such as animated sequences featuring creatures that are part animal, part human. There’s certainly no shortage of whimsy in this “baroque comedy”, said Danny Leigh in the FT. But as Wain’s life falls apart, the film matures into a subtle and heartfelt study of ruined mental health. “Sharpe has made something sincerely strange, rather than its annoying cousin, zany.”

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