Watching “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” was an emotional journey. I laughed, cried, ached and smiled. At the end of the film’s 111-minute runtime, I genuinely felt like I had lived an entire life. The biopic follows the life of Louis Wain, an English artist who transformed the (previously negative) public opinion of cats with his fun, lively artwork.
The film begins by introducing Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”) as an incredibly peculiar, frenetic young man who dabbles in everything — musicals, inventions, boxing and, of course, art. Louis works as an illustrator for “The Illustrated London News”, where his boss, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones, “Captain America: The First Avenger”), vacillates between admiration for Louis’s talent and exasperation at his many antics. Louis supports his five younger sisters and ailing mother with his drawings, but their family continues to struggle financially despite it. His world is turned upside down when he meets his future wife, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy, “First Man”). Emily and Louis are perfect for each other (they’re both a little odd), and their marriage is happy and wonderful.
This first portion of the movie carries lovely off-beat humor that’s fun, cheeky and delightful. The tempo is quick and the tone is quirky, and I basically fell in love. But Emily and Louis’s bliss is soon eclipsed by tragedy, which surprisingly gives way to some truly beautiful moments of love and heartache. There’s a certain conversation between the two that is so perfectly crafted, real and heartbreaking that I will always treasure it.
But then the film takes another heart-wrenching turn as Louis is hit with tragedy after tragedy. This part is almost painful to watch, to the point where you might consider the title to be a misnomer, because shouldn’t the film be called “The Terribly Tragic Life of Louis Wain?” But all the while, Louis continues to paint and draw these amusing, joyful pictures of cats. The stark contrast between Louis’s outward fame and success and internal grief is heartbreaking. He’s tormented and alone. We see that success without love is no success at all.
But through it all, it’s impossible to give up on Louis Wain. Cumberbatch is perfect for this role. His chemistry with Foy is flawless and completely believable. The storytelling in this film is beautiful, and director Will Sharpe (“Flowers”) succeeds in keeping to the same style so that the film remains cohesive even as it weaves through highs and lows with ever-changing tone and pacing. Because each event in Louis’s life flows together without missing a beat, the viewer becomes totally immersed in the life of Louis Wain, which makes the happy parts happier and sad parts all the more heartbreaking.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is also very much an artistic piece. It’s littered with symbolism and vibrant colors, and there are some sequences (like the kaleidoscope-esque cat animation in the latter half) that may give some viewers a confused pause. Also, Sharpe uses a 4:3 aspect ratio (more square-ish than rectangle-ish) that is reminiscent of the early years of filmmaking, which gives the film a retro, artsy feel.
Altogether, the combination of beautiful cinematography and captivating storytelling produces this lovely biopic that will make you laugh and cry and realize that life is beautiful and cruel at the same time. “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” left my soul cleansed and my heart full. I’d watch it again in a heartbeat.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.