Directed by Will Sharpe, Amazon Studios’ 2021 film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain stars Oscar-nominated Benedict Cumberbatch, who also produced the film, as Louis Wain. This eccentric time-piece drama based on a true story opens to a contemplative elderly man listening to a radio obituary. The scene shifts to a dark, rainy London day where, in slow motion, mourners dressed in black carrying umbrellas make their way to a funeral for Louis Wain’s father. Narrated by Olivia Colman, the opening monologue establishes the context of Victorian England pinned against technological advancement, emphasizing Wain’s obsession with electricity: “Louis Wain believed that electrical forces are what pull us forward in time and help us hold onto our memories.” The film then returns to the old man who dances by himself in what appears to be a sanitarium.
The viewer is taken to 1881. Wain is commissioned to illustrate stories for The Illustrated London News by Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), an editor and publisher, who is a recurrent force throughout the film. Eighteen months after his father’s death, Wain is offered a permanent position. Wain is seen as “unfit” to become man of the household as the oldest of six. Louis’ sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), a bombastic woman, is more fit to head the family, if only she was a man. Claire Foy, who plays Emily-Richardson, is introduced as the governess who will teach Louis’ sisters. The love story begins.
The Electrical Life is firmly grounded in time, presenting clear on-screen cues, which builds a chronological structure in the form of visual autobiography. Colman’s contextualizing offers succinct exposition to fill in any gaps. With the light-hearted, sarcastic, and omniscient narrator, the complexity and oddities of Wain’s character is further fleshed out. The Electrical Life does well to oscillate between the light-hearted and the poignant, although the emotional elements of the film are at times forced, and even overbearing, while the film moves in too many directions at once, mimicking its main character.
When a balance is struck, the characters come to life. For example, when Wain wants to invite Emily to the theater to see The Tempest, he stumbles upon her painting in her bedroom one night in preparation to teach the girls a drawing lesson in the morning. The painting is horrible, and Wain struggles not to laugh. Before he goes to bed, Wain says, “When it comes to drawing, there’s only really one rule you need to teach. It’s to look.” This is, after all, a character piece. Wain is endearing; his likability is only reinforced by Cumberbatch’s performance.
The plot enters the archetypal forbidden romance. Colman, in one of the monologues, says “as this peculiar romance blossomed clumsily into flower, the discrepancy in their social standing became the cause of great controversy.” Eventually, the two begin to live a happy, albeit unconventional, married life. This, of course, cannot last. Emily gets sick. One night, after the doctor leaves in the rain, Emily and Louis discover a kitten, who they take as their own and name Peter. The cat becomes a driving force that leads to Louis’ fame.
In one scene, Louis talks to his friend Herb while watching a boxing match: “Do you know the true meaning of the phrase, ‘there’s no time like the present,’ Herb? It’s that there isn’t. It’s too fleeting.” The boxing match becomes blurry. “In fact, I have a hypothesis that electricity is what pushes us through time. We turn the past into the future with the power of our electricity. But that process is entirely reversible. Remembering the past is no different from imagining the future. And neither is different to life itself. I can remember Emily in the future, and she will be there. Do you see what I’m saying, Herb?” Herb looks confused, silent, nods his head. The viewer is confused, too, as Louis’ mental illness progresses. This theme of electricity is woven throughout the film, but it is forced at times, never quite resolved, and brings an overabundance of sentimentality to a film that doesn’t require excess.
By 1891, Louis buries “the pain of his grief under a quite extraordinary quantity of cat pictures. Almost without realizing, he had achieved an alarming degree of success and completely altered the public’s attitude towards the humble cat.” Wain judges a cat competition for the National Cat Club, becoming their new president. Even with Wain’s newfound national fame, he did not copyright his extensive drawings and paintings of cats, and he falls into debt. His sister yells, “You’re not a child, Louis. You’re a man.” Wain’s inability to handle adulting is a constant.
Marie, one of his other sisters, slips deeper into schizophrenia, and everything seems to be crumbling when Louis’ old boss and friend from the Illustrated London Times, Sir William, puts the Wains up at one of his properties in the country. Marie’s condition does not improve. Peter, the cat, passes. Louis “realized that the memories he still held of his dear wife, Emily, and darling Peter had become powerful conductors of that mysterious electricity in the atmosphere that he had so far been unable to harness.” Rain and lightning are used as overt motifs that, like much of these planted themes, is overdone. The sentimentality ruins often well-written dialogue: “You can run away from your family,” his mother says, “but you can not run away from your grief. It trails you. Like a violent shadow.”
Louis arrives in New York in 1907, where he is “immediately struck by a palpable difference in the material content of the atmosphere. It was clear that this was a city with an enormous surfeit of electrical energy.” He begins having flashbacks to the scene of drowning in the beginning of the film. He can’t get out of his room. Visually, the room fills with water. “Help me, Please!” he screams. “I’m drowning!” In reality, Louis is standing in a ravaged, cluttered room, alone.
By 1914, the family has sunken deeper into debt. Death surrounds the family, and Louis falls off a bus and into coma, which causes him to have a vision of the year 1999. He starts drawing futurist cats, which become a huge success. But negative electricity spreads. Nearly all his work—his cargo—is destroyed by a German U-Boat.
Louis’ sister, Caroline, while in bed, dying, says, “I want you to know that I’m very proud of you.” Louis slips further out of control. This is depicted by the film turning psychedelic: shapes and colors morph into the face of a cat. The approach again seems to cheapen the story and the characters themselves, leaving the audience baffled. The voice of Louis’ wife tells him, “I don’t make the world beautiful, Louis. The world is beautiful. And you helped me see that too.”
The Electrical Life returns to Louis as an old man—the man from the beginning—in his room, as a patient, painting. It is 1925. The world has become aware of Wain’s plight. Money has been raised to help support him, and Mr. Rider, who we met early in the film, ends up being Louis’ great advocate, securing improved accommodations for Wain.
Through the inconsistencies and overbearing themes, one of the last scenes ends on a poignant note. Wain and Rider sit on a bench. “I think she wanted you to keep painting so you would not be alone,” says Rider. “When you paint, Mr. Wain, you connect with other people and you give them a piece of yourself, but they are also connecting with you. And that electricity that you describe, that you felt in the presence of Emily, I’d call that love, Mr. Wain. And that is still here.”