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Review: 'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' never ignites

Courtesy of Amazon Studios


Baked with whimsical elements and a dash of sentimentality, star/producer Benedict Cumberbatch’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” overextends trying to get folks invested in the semi-uneventful exploits around Louis Wain. Wain, a cartoonist for the Illustrated London News in the mid to late 1800s, gained notoriety for his cute and slightly obnoxious drawings of cats, squashing the stigma that adorable and fluffy felines were only mouse catchers and should never be domesticated. Wain’s biggest contribution to the world, having cats as pets, seldomly reads in “Louis Wain,” which suffers from stifled pacing and pandering biopic troupes.

Cumberbatch brings his pedigree to the Edwardian illustrator, Louis Wain, a man burdened with serious fits of depression and financial illiteracy but crammed inside the matted 4:1 aspect ratio, writer and director Will Sharpe never lets him break out. Cumberbatch has warmth as the down-on-his-luck cartoonist who would be grief stricken early in life and tried sending whatever extra cash floating around to his mother and sisters living in poverty, but Claire Foy looks strained playing Wain’s wife, Emily. Her failed battle with breast cancer became the inspiration for Wain’s late career resurgence, though Sharpe weighs down the emotional integrity with chaotic side vignettes, Emily is reduced to a glorified supporting role when she played a much bigger influence on the Wain people appreciate today.

Sharpe wrestles with approaching Wain in a unique manner, tinkering with the color temperatures and vibrant backgrounds to offer a glimpse into the artist’s troubled mind. Perhaps that’s an accurate representation of the chaotic madness circulating around his subconscious, but on screen it never transcends above artsy. Exemplified by the film constantly humming about Wain’s obsession with “electricity” that is supposedly anywhere and everywhere. Cumberbatch is no stranger at playing outcasts trying to leave their mark on society, having embodied similar visionaries in “The Current War” and “The Imitation Game.” Unlike Thomas Edison and Alan Turing, both contributing to history books in a meaningful way, Wain, despite his solid gifts to the subgenre of animal portraits, never makes the case for his own biopic with Sharpe failing to ascertain what elements of his and Simon Stephenson’s muddled screenplay audiences should take seriously.

Underscored with tedious narration by Olivia Coleman (another artsy tactic that never pays off), “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” also features several cameos, including Nick Cave as HG Wells and Taika Waititi as a money hungry editorial executive, who seem misplaced and unfocused. Cumberbatch doesn’t even know how to interact with them. These hastily put together scenes, while complementing Cumberbatch’s delicate performance, lack an emotional investment worthy of a full-length feature. There’s no spark among the subject matter and there’s certainly no electricity to keep this gentle drama buzzing.

Grade: C-

THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN opens in select theaters Friday, October 22nd and debuts on Prime Video, November 5th.


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