Benedict Cumberbatch gives a big performance in a film that offers little insight into the artist’s life.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an alternatively madcap and melancholic retelling of the artistic and personal life of the peculiar Louis Wain by making a lot of noise but not saying much. Biographical films have to tread a very difficult line. They must tell their central characters’ life and accomplishments while humanizing them through their rituals and quirks. And they must do this all without turning the movie idealization or fetishization of such things. Narratively, what Louis Wain gets right is that focusing on the man as a deeply troubled individual and melds his artistic work along with the afflictions that he suffered. What it gets wrong is its inability to dig deeper into Louis Wain beyond his whimsies and mannerisms and the surrounding greater Victorian English culture.
Much of the movie exists in constant commotion, bolstered by the extremely detailed production design of Suzie Davies and the costumes by Michael O’Connor. This is the realm of Baz Luhrman. However, Luhrman can get away with it. His characters are almost always secondary to the world that engulfs them, turning their stories into immersive theatrical spectacles of bit players. Louis Wain is still very much about the man himself and the contrasts between him and the world in which he lives. While Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance showcases the prowess with which he shifts expression and voice, the movie expects to ride everything on his shoulders. There just isn’t enough depth to justify it.
Louis Wain’s peculiarity, both in his art and mannerisms–perhaps psychologically related–renders him as someone who simply doesn’t fit in. He even seems to lack the ability to fit into his family. Unlike Cumberbatch’s internalized turn as Alan Turin in The Imitation Game, here the actor outwardly expresses Wain’s struggles. The narrative constantly goads us to consider his weird nature a result of genius. Moreover, it suggests his inability to sync to the wavelengths of the crackling electricity of the movie’s talkative and very well-adjusted British society is a revolutionary act of repudiation. His peculiarities render him as a sort of fetishized entity within the film.
This movie’s balancing of Wain’s deeply felt neuroses and everything around him moving like a circus becomes monotonous. It hardly goes deeper into his psychology than observing he’s different than everyone else. It even uses the crutch of the upstanding woman who understands him, something which, in my recollection, only ever worked once in the history of cinema–David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
[Louis Wain’s] peculiarities render him as a sort of fetishized entity within the film.
Here, it’s more like The Theory of Everything where Jane Hawking acts as the reasonable translator or liaison to Stephen Hawking’s incomprehensible genius making him more understandable to the rest of society. So is Emily to Louis Wain, perhaps with lower stakes. Claire Foy remains a reliable presence giving the same warmth she did in the several previous ‘supportive wife’ roles (First Man, Breath, Rosewater, etc.).
Cumberbatch’s performance is a showy one that gives ample attention to Wain’s character quirks. It also makes us notice the actor’s efforts, suggesting something more like an awards campaign reel. Outside of the obvious showmanship, Louis Wain doesn’t step above, beyond, or even to the side of what is a very routine biographical retelling. All of the movie’s pizzazz seeks to distract from a story that fails to give justice to Wain. It really should give us deeper insights than he’s sort of weird and draws cats.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain begins creating October 22th in theatres and November 5th on Amazon Prime.