Benedict Cumberbatch shines far brighter than he ever has in this strange fantastical film as he revels in his role as the titular character in Will Sharpes’ The Electrical life of Louis Wain: a real artist who made his name painting pictures of cats. Lot’s of them. The film is split neatly into three acts covering the landmark moments of his life: first as he is working as an illustrator in 1881, then his first romantic experience that is amusing in its own way, and last when he decided to begin creating massive numbers of paintings that all featured cats. For him it was much more than painting: in his view, he helped changed the national perception of a cat bring a potential house pet. For Louis though it was much more, his attachment to cats symbolising past feelings he didn’t understand, which is what the film explores with a smile and a skip in its step.
Cumberbatch takes this real person and creates a character that is his own, uniquely eccentric and memorable. Most importantly, it’s believable and played with compassion. Louis’ lack of social skills would point to autism in the modern day, but the year is 1881 when the film begins. It comes as no surprise that compassion for being different and weird don’t exist as his actions are regularly labelled imbecilic and insane, both by strangers and siblings, while it is assumed he is mocking the societal and polite norms of Victorian-era Britain. The reality Louis sees is very different: he often appears to not listen, not to care or even understand that his behaviour causes constant problems. Often the butt of jokes, the fact he rarely seems affected by them renders him a fascinating character: representing the misfit, those who struggle to ‘fit in’ to current society.
Contrasting almost all of this is the film’s near-absolute refusal to take itself seriously, lending a light-hearted tone to these bleak situations, ideal fodder dry humour. Even the plot sounds amusing – a biopic about a crazy man who painted thousands of cats? – while the first interaction we see of Louis is so well written and performed that it establishes this light tone immediately, allowing the laughs to flow early and often. Interestingly they are often also at at Louis’ expense. While working as an illustrator early in life, it is impossible not to grin at the very least when his editor asks him why he decided to get three metres close to the meanest bull at the fair he was covering. The nonchalant way he responds with “well, I wanted to get a closer look”, bears no hint of sarcasm. Its his honest, serious answer to the question, a natural response from a man who is usually unaware of how rude he can seem. And it is consistently hilarious.
Quiet commentary on gender equality sits in the background as Louis is expected by his entire family to provide for them as the only male sibling, despite it the obvious fact that he doesn’t possess any business acumen at all. This is was indeed so true that he was known to sell paintings outright, unable to understand the world in which he worked. It is an interesting and different look at the topic, the lack of gender rights were why his family were never able to stay financially stable, but on the other side of the coin, his sisters are often harsh on him for bringing home pitiful sized pay-checks. It is a clever bit of writing that doesn’t hold any bias and also is true to the era the film is set in, nor does it tread on the story at all.
What also must be mentioned is how amazing the film looks. Framed using an oldcolour to bring an old era to life adds yet more life to a lively affair. Some scenes see the colours gradually becoming so washed away they literally look like a painting, beautifully underscoring a few important moments. Even the transition from the opening title of the film to the first scene involving Louis is incredibly done, and this quality doesn’t falter, enhancing dream sequences and the film at large, taking this old era of Britain and painting it fun.
The Electrical life of Louis Wain falls somewhere between the whimsical nature of many Wes Anderson films and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite – Olivia Coleman even serves as a dryly sarcastic narrator, to great comedic affect. While Benedict is at the centre of much of the humour, the other culprits range from his editor to his oddball sisters to even the narrator. This quintessentially British film sees Sharpe direct a uniquely hilarious film that is complete with a visual style appropriately resembling a painting. It is the most fun, purely enjoyable and well made films of 2021.
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