The Electrical Life of Louis Wain TIFF Review

The Plot

A biopic of titular eccentric Edwardian artist Louis Wain, who became unexpectedly famous for his adorable cat illustrations, whilst also struggling with the burdens of tragic loss, depression, family responsibilities and financial woes.

The Good

Benedict Cumberbatch’s ardent fanbase gets to enjoy another quirky performance from the much beloved actor, providing a look at a mostly forgotten artist with a special appeal for feline lovers. Those familiar with Wain’s work will at least be pleased to see much of the same brightly coloured and unapologetically twee whimsy packed onto screen.

Throughout the film there are also occasional flashes of talent in truly poignant moments that shine through, particularly between Cumberbatch and Claire Foy as Wain’s terminally ill wife. The authentic love and affection between them is one of the perhaps few tangible qualities the film possesses. It’s a genuine journey of loss that carries emotional weight in spite of the film’s wider struggles to refine its’ overly eccentric tone and muddled messages.

The Bad

Drolly narrated and frequently overwhelmed by an overabundance of heavy handed quirkiness this is a film that frantically struggles to charm audiences with oversaturated but mostly hollow visual charms.

It’s a sometimes perplexing mess of mixed intentions too as the film seemingly struggles to reconcile precisely whether it intends to celebrate Wain’s singular artistic achievement of cute cat drawings as legitimately vital artwork or merely to instead lament that this is tragically the only expression the world knew of his apparent artistic gifts. The seemingly insurmountable burden for the film is that it’s difficult to either take Wain’s mawkish feline images seriously or to somehow reimagine him as some kind of overlooked genius based upon very little else.

Benedict Cumberbatch playing the titular Wain don’s a comically flamboyant moustache and once again seemingly slips into increasingly familiar ‘neurodivergent’ mode. Unfortunately having already famously tread this territory with both Sherlock and The Imitation Game, this third time is sadly not a charm. Like the film as a whole Cumberbatch’s performance is well intentioned but often lost amongst a clumsy bustle of quirks and exaggerated eccentricity.

Perhaps the most awkward challenge for Cumberbatch is that Wain’s elaborately affected mannerisms are neither played for unashamedly silly comedic effect nor enough on their own to somehow transform Wain into a significant artistic figure beyond his singular embarrassingly kitsch achievement. It’s sadly impossible to avoid the impression that the film is by default suggesting that Wain should somehow be celebrated merely because he had a somewhat lively and ‘unusual’ personality, beyond the fact he drew some popularly cute cartoon cats.

The Ugly Truth

As an artistic biopic this is a film that struggles to adequately explain why Louis Wain’s fleeting fame for drawing mawkish feline doodles deserves to be either celebrated or instead lamented. Efforts to overwhelm audiences with a barrage of quirkiness never succeeds in distracting from that awkward question. Wain’s insubstantial artistic achievements leave Benedict Cumberbatch’s elaborately moustached and ‘whimsical’ performance feeling even more awkward at times.

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