Those who see the world in a different way than others are often cast out and dismissed as fanatic, insane, dangerous, or some combination of negative monikers. In many cases, an ability to perceive or understand something others cannot means that someone is actually a visionary capable of seeing concepts that won’t be normalized or accepted for years. Throughout history, there have been many fascinating figures whose stories have been largely forgotten, and getting to know them on screen is a far too delayed tribute to their legacies. Among them is the eccentric protagonist of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an artist in 1880s England who is able to create detailed and impressive sketches within seconds. His focus is on animals, and he sees something that others don’t, which leads him to create drawings of anthropomorphized cats that have distinct personalities and cause others to question how they view and regard the species. His lack of regard for the way that things are done leads him also to pursue a romantic relationship with the governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), that his serious-minded sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) has hired, which upsets Caroline greatly and causes him and his family by extension to be looked down on by society.
This film, like its title character, is decidedly peculiar, seeking to convey the way in which Wain saw electricity as affecting the way people behaved and interacted in a visual and coherent way. Coupling that with bizarre images of cats makes for an occasionally dizzying experience, one that likely succeeds at providing a window into Wain’s mind, which might make much more sense in the century that has passed since the future-minded intellectual, who was then regarded as mentally ill, lived and worked.
It’s difficult not to compare this film to other Cumberbatch performances since the chameleonic actor tends to select challenging roles that allow him to fully dig into complicated characters. Like his Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Wain is a figure who was never properly appreciated in his own time. His obsession with electricity and finding a way to network the world is reminiscent of his Thomas Edison in The Current War. His certainty that he is right and others should think like him may be more muted and mildly politer than his Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, but the two parts aren’t all that far apart.
Cumberbatch is certainly the right fit for this part, making Wain a charismatic and watchable figure. He is wonderfully paired with Foy, best known for her Emmy-winning portrayal of a young Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown, in a delightful and entertaining turn as another idealist with different notions than those around her. Their love story is a compelling one that could probably have made for its own movie, and which serves as an endearing and sweet introduction to Wain’s journey of self-expression.
What follows isn’t quite as even or articulate, showcasing how the way in which Wain sharing his drawings and thoughts with the world meant that it began to exclude him from it. As Wain is pushed further away, the film clings to his perspective, which, while interesting, is more difficult to follow and makes for a less accessible viewing experience. Director Will Sharpe invites audiences to get to know someone whose art displayed tremendous imagination and paved the way for new thinking, and perhaps it’s most appropriate that the film about that man feels decidedly avant-garde in its own right.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Gala Presentations section and will be released in theaters on October 22nd and on Amazon Prime Video on November 5th.