The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Directed by Will Sharpe

Screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe, Story by Simon Stephenson

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foye, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Olivia Colman, Adeel Akhtar

Reflecting on Benedict Cumberbatch‘s career, the actor has donned many hats, and with each performance, his craft gets stronger and stronger. Ever the dramatist, he is a perfect fit as renowned artist Louis Wain in Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” now playing in theaters and dropping on Amazon Prime on November 5th.

Sharpe, who co-wrote the long-gestating script with Simon Stephenson (based on Stephenson’s story), frames Cumberbatch front and center as an eccentric. Cumberbatch plays Wain with a shy, reserved approach, which plays into the later years featured in Wain’s life.

Wain is the older brother, and for the sake of the time the film is set, the family breadwinner who takes care of his sisters, mother, and children. They are of means; however, with such an entire household, Wain, who is given to living life one experiment at a time and those pursuits are seen as disruptive, must find work.

These experiments draw the ire of a rather rambunctious Sir William Ingram, played by Toby Jones, another character actor who impresses with each performance. Gone is Jones’ enigmatic performance; instead, he is the tough-as-nails editor of a newspaper in need of Wain’s artistic ability. Mind you, the photograph has not yet come into the picture during the period in which the film is set, so Wain’s ability to capture images from real life is something of value. Cumberbatch’s and Jones’ interactions are some of the liveliest moments in the film, with the script and Sharpe focusing on their relationship as a key to Wain’s productivity.

To that end, Wain’s nieces and nephews require a teacher, Emily Richardson, played by Claire Foye. Wain, at first objects, saying he’d instead teach the kids. His sisters remind him that he has neither the time nor the patience along with other obligations. Sharpe and Cumberbatch establish the early signs of psychosis in these scenes, where the brilliant Wain overloads himself to escape his reality.  Emily catches Wain’s eye, one the family objects to. Yet, Cumberbatch’s performance is believable; the ease with which Wain accepts Emily, who eventually becomes the object of his affection in what now would be considered a dated courting attempt, is played to its logical conclusion. Foy plays Richardson with the same reserved, shy approach; they are a pair made in heaven.

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” paints these pursuits with an unexpected voracity, but they serve merely as a distraction from a slowly unfolding story, which lingers far too long. In a credit to the film, Erik Wilson’s cinematography is painterly; you almost feel like you’re watching a moving still come to life, especially where Emily and Louis are concerned. Wain’s anthropomorphized paintings and drawings, along with his love of cats, consume the film. Sharpe isn’t so overbearing with them that it becomes a distraction from the film; after all, what Wain was ultimately known for was his ability to capture life in a single moment. Olivia Colman serves as the film’s narrator, adding a contextual layer that lightens the film’s headier passages.

Its intentions are good, with a love story at its heart, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is not as electrical as its title suggests. I’d imagine that the film would look grander on a theater screen. The performances and cinematography save the film, but the story is too broad to depict Wain’s life.

PG-13, 111 minutes, StudioCanal, Film4 Productions/Amazon Studios