Benedict Cumberbatch has been a busy man of late. Earlier in the year, we saw him play unlikely spy Greville Wynne in cold war thriller The Courier, while shortly he’ll star against type as cruel, brutish rancher Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s stunning western The Power of the Dog. First up though, Cumberbatch takes on the title role in Will Sharpe’s comic biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which finds the Sherlock actor in rather more familiar territory as another eccentric genius with bizarre interests and a severe lack of social skills.
Wain, an English artist most widely known for his playful drawings of large-eyed cats, is introduced as a “polyhobbyist” – an unusual man who jumps from one activity to the next with great gusto and varying degrees of skill, his wide-ranging pastimes running the gamut from boxing to writing operas. It’s clear from the outset that chaos – and often misfortune – follows Wain wherever he goes, with his life presented as a rather frenzied, unpredictable ordeal. Two things, however, emerge to give this life some shape: his clumsy courtship with governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), which forms the narrative thrust for the first half of the film, and his aforementioned cat drawings, which prove a great hit with the masses and eventually play a role in popularising the feline as a common household pet in the UK.
The film goes to great lengths to mark itself out from more traditional, by the numbers, biopic fare – and while its ambition on this front is to be applauded, the result is something that’s all just a little too quirky for its own good. The film’s visual stylings aim to mirror its title character’s own eccentricities – there are unusual camera angles, retro-stylised black and white flashbacks, still shots that are transformed to resemble paintings, and all manner of other techniques intended to evoke a sense of whimsy (including subtitles that show a pet cat saying things like “I like jomping”). It’s all very deliberately quirky in a way that skirts the line between charming and irritating but too often falls into the latter category, while the film unfortunately also mirrors Wain’s rather scatterbrained nature by becoming increasingly unfocused in its latter half, which skips through the years from one misfortune to the next without any real sense of rhythm.
Sharpe is clearly a talented director with a good eye – there are some great compositions to enjoy and the film often looks beautiful – but perhaps he would have benefited from adopting a less is more approach at times. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little whimsy, and the film’s subject matter practically demands it in this case, but the rather exhausting nature of the forced kookiness often just gets in the way of the film’s emotional core, and it would have benefited from everything being dialled down a little. Indeed the most affecting moment from an emotional standpoint is one of the film’s most stylistically understated – an intimate scene shared between Cumberbatch and Foy while the latter’s character is suffering from poor health – and more of this would have been welcome.
As for the performances, Cumberbatch seems to be rather going through the motions in the lead role – we’ve seen all those awkward stares, blundering speeches, and assorted tics from him a million times before, and the result is a character that feels more like an archetype than a real historical figure. One thing that can’t be doubted is the calibre of the supporting cast – of which Foy is the highlight – with a huge range of famous faces popping up throughout the runtime, sometimes in very minor roles (Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Asim Choudury, Sophia Di Martino, Adeel Akhtar, Aimee Lou Wood, Taika Waititi and, bizarrely, Nick Cave are among those to make appearances). Meanwhile, Olivia Colman serves as a narrator, providing a warm voiceover which is mildly witty if not exactly hysterically funny.
There are certainly things in the film’s favour – great care has gone into the set design and costuming for example, while credit must also go to Arthur Sharpe’s terrific score – and it seems likely that some viewers will be won over by Sharpe’s undoubted flair as a director. Ultimately, though, the overbearing whimsy of it all tests patience to the limit – and means that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain goes down as something of a misfire.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 5th November 2021. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide or visit our Movies hub for more news and features.