According to the filmmakers behind “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” many of us owe Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s intense even for him) a great debt. It’s incredible to think of now in our modern world where cats are practically the ruling animals of the Internet, but they were apparently considered vermin before Wain made them lovable pets through his paintings.
So determined is the film to do him justice that it reassures us “this is a true story,” rather than offering the usual based-on qualifiers. The truth is a funny, often brutal thing though, and the more “Electrical Life” goes on, the more buried it becomes, sometimes literally, under a sea of quirk rather than delving into just how far Wain fell and how his vulnerability left him exploited.
He begins promisingly, eking out enough of a living to support his sisters in their whimsically unconventional household, surrounded as well by fellow weirdos who accept him, and eventually the patronage of those who sympathize. Wain does and did find success and changed the general culture, but he was also so inept in business matters that he often saw little profit from his efforts, with his sisters often paying the price for his lack of attention.
Wain manages to earn their almost unanimous disapproval when he falls in love with and marries the family governess, Emily (Claire Foy), with a whole lot of focus on the fact that the scandal stems from their class differences. Left out almost entirely is the age gap, and that Emily was 33, ten years older than Louis, thus seen largely as a decrepit, sexless spinster in the eyes of Victorian society. It might be shocking until we remember that as late as 1997 the central premise in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” was the two friends planning to marry each other if they were both still single at age 28.
The marriage proves of benefit to the film, since Louis and Emily are allotted six months of wedded bliss before Emily passes away from cancer, showing up to be an inspirational angel throughout the rest of Louis’s difficult life. An annoying trope, but the movie adds further insult to injury by having narrator Olivia Colman read lines such as, “The more intensely he suffered, the more beautiful his work became.”
The implications are obvious and unneeded, especially when we’re struggling to rethink so many of our attitudes toward mental illness. But the women in the film are reduced even further, with one of Louis’s sister’s struggles with her own mental health given barely enough time and attention to make an impression, which seems especially unfair given that she probably shared many of her older brother’s pains sans the outlets that made his life productive. Andrea Riseborough fares even worse as the older sister Caroline, coming across as little more than a nag who can’t seem to approve of anything Louis does.
It’s almost a relief when the end arrives and Louis is finally acknowledged for his contributions and able to find a limited amount of peace. The filmmakers seem desperate to capture some of the beauty he was able to find too, with “Paddington” cinematographer Erik Wilson giving even the darkest moments a beautiful melancholy, making full use of the nature scenes to imbue them with the beauty of a vibrant landscape painting. If the rest of the film were full of such care and respect, maybe “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” would feel less forgettable.