TIFF 2021: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ Is A Biopic For Cat Lovers & Artists

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Electrical Life of Louis Wan

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a biopic film directed by Will Sharpe and produced by Amazon Studios. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular artist, a rather eccentric man who has a talent for illustrating animals-especially cats. The film spans from the 1800s to the 1900s, including how Wain’s illustrations changed the general perception of cats in London society and his relationship with governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), which causes much consternation in his family due to their social standing and Emily’s age.

This marks Cumberbatch’s second TIFF feature following The Power of the Dog, and both films showcase the immense range of his talent. While The Power of the Dog features Cumberbatch as a cruel ranch owner and leans into its gritty Western trappings, Electrical Life is more of a whimsical take on the biopic film. Cumberbatch leans into that whimsy, painting Wain as a rather charming yet socially awkward man who excels when sketching animals but less so with talking to other people. He is often shown hunched over a sketchpad or avoiding eye contact, but when he meets Emily, that changes; he seems more at ease and willing to open up. Sharpe and Simon Stephenson’s script thankfully avoids smearing the film in schmaltz, which helps the more emotional moments to have a genuine impact; they also approach Wain’s mental state with care, never playing it for laughs.

Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Wilson film the majority of the film in a hazy, dreamlike state, only shifting to darkly lit scenes to represent the “downs” in Wain’s life. Perhaps the most visually striking and out-of-left-field sequence comes at a point where Wain begins to hallucinate that his drawings have come to life. Watching this sequence, I had two thoughts running on my mind: “So this is what being on acid feels like” and “This man really loves cats.” Unlike Tolkien, which was content to lay on its Lord of the Rings references a little too thick, Wain’s love of cats and his theory that they harness a form of electricity feels like an integral part of Electric Life and not too in your face.

Electric Life also boasts a supporting cast that plays off Cumberbatch perfectly. Foy and Cumberbatch’s scenes are fueled by heartwarming dollops chemistry, while Andrea Riseborough and Toby Jones fill the straight man roles as Wain’s beleaguered sister and boss at The Illustrated London News. Sharpe also peppers the cast with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, including Sophia Di Martino and even Taika Waititi. Olivia Colman serves as the film’s narrator, adding to the whimsical element as she recounts events both triumphant and tragic in Wain’s life.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain stands heads and shoulders above the usual biopic, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and a rather whimsical take on its source material. Much like fellow TIFF entry Encounter, this film pushes the boundaries of its genre and results in a richer experience for it. Whether you’re a fan of Cumberbatch’s work, an aspiring artist, or you’re really into cats; this is a film I recommend for everyone.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will play in select theaters on October 22 and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on November 5.


The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain stands heads and shoulders above the usual biopic, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and a rather whimsical take on its source material. Much like fellow TIFF entry Encounter, this film pushes the boundaries of its genre and results in a richer experience for it. Whether you’re a fan of Cumberbatch’s work, an aspiring artist, or you’re really into cats; this is a film I recommend for everyone.