The other other Benedict Cumberbatch movie of the fall season, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, is perhaps the kind of film we might have expected from the star a decade ago. Here he stars as the titular famed artist in the kind of flowery biopic crafted with an aesthetic just left of center, the kind that has influences from Tim Burton to Julie Taymor to Richard Attenborough. It is the sophomore feature directing effort of Will Sharpe (also sharing screenwriting duties with Simon Stephenson), who brings a great deal of stylish panache to the proceedings. But in capturing a turbulent life, Sharpe delivers an uneven biopic.
Famous for his luminescent paintings of cats filled with wild personality, Wain initially struggled as an artist to support his sisters before rising in society as a global popular artist. Formatively for the film, we see Wain connect with his great love Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), drawing inspiration from their short-lived relationship well past her untimely death. In addition to this early tragedy, Wain’s life was marred by poverty and poor mental health, resulting in later institutionalization during a time when science had not developed more holistic modes of treatment. With sweet and whimsical narration from Olivia Colman and flashes of kaleidoscopic, hallucinogenic imagery, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is tender but ultimately unaffecting.
Much of the film rests on its star’s shoulders. Cumberbatch is working in territory we have seen him play in before with frequency, and he doesn’t present new shades with his performance here. But his work as Wain is still admirable, perhaps the most cohesive handler of the film’s competing textures with a performance able to package Wain’s psychosis, genius, and compassion all into a fully formed character. What Cumberbatch lacks in surprise, he offers in humble totality, a Wain that exists beyond the confines of a greatest hits storytelling of a noteworthy historic figure.
What begins as an arch and oddball portrait of an artist eventually devolves into gloopy biopic movements as Wain’s life enters more tragic terrain. The film is most enjoyable when goofy, even if it rings of try-hard tactics and doesn’t fully integrate its elements when leaning in to this vibe. But it’s easy to take it for such compared to the Finding Neverland-esque maudlin notes it strikes in its second and third acts. Sharpe simply doesn’t find the balance between his subject’s upbeat eccentricity and his heartbreaking circumstance, leading to a film that begs for more of the messy fun to be imbued into its less successful saccharine passages.
The sum of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’s parts amounts to a largely less vibrant and idiosyncratic depiction of the artist than suits his work. The film is attempting to cram an awful lot of life into two hours and the result is similar to what befalls other biopics with even less peculiar subjects: breadth, but at the cost of halting disconnected tones and sacrificed point of view. Elsewhere, performances by Andrea Riseborough and Hayley Squires impress in limited screentime, both performers embodying the film’s broad comedy and human tragedy respectively. It is at times a diverting biopic, but one that one fleetingly serves the man at its center, with not enough ideas about the context of the time in which he lived.