Review: “The Electric Life of Louis Wain” at Aspen Filmfest


Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Electric Life of Louis Wain”. (Courtesy of Aspen Film)

Illustrator Louis Wain drew fancy cats who played games and threw party nights, creating the original cat memes in Victorian London and – as the new biopic “The Electric Life of Louis Wain” argues – leading the way to the acceptance of mercurial animals. as pets.

The film, which premiered Wednesday night at Aspen Filmfest, stars a winning Benedict Cumberbatch as Wain in a performance that’s as deeply committed to playing out the artist’s eccentricities and quirks as the tragic twists and turns of his life even as her cats were celebrated in Britain and the United States.

“Louis Wain has dedicated his life to making all of our lives happier and more shimmering,” said two-time Oscar winner Olivia Colman in her arched and playful narration from the start. “He raised the cat in society and changed the world for the better.”

Yet the film, directed by Will Sharpe from a screenplay he wrote with Simon Stephenson, is not at all interested in cats or their creation. Wain’s most famous designs are incidental to the on-screen action here, focusing more on who Wain was rather than what he did. He devotes his first half to his many follies and tries to financially support his abusive mother and five single sisters and dating Emily Richardson (a charming Claire Foy).

Frantic footage in the film that shows Wain’s drawing shows him as a genius illustrator, working with a pencil in each hand to create quick and precise portraits – a skill that earned him a coveted position on the staff of The Illustrated. London News.

Wild-haired and over-the-top Briton, Cumberbatch deliciously stomps in Victorian scenes – we see him boxing the old fashioned way, splashing himself in a Turkish bath, awkwardly having fun in a pool hall. “Lous Wain” is never stilted or posed, despite the vests and the bustle and late 19th century setting. In his clever tone and in those delightfully rendered period scenes, he could function as a double companion to Armando Ianucci’s 2020 criminally neglected adaptation of “David Copperfield,” both British period comedies filmed with a vibrant contemporary energy, staged with production designs and performed with a playful and welcome sense of humor.

As the whimsical touches of the film accumulate – the cats get subtitled dialogue in a few places at the right time – the film and Wain’s life become more complicated and often tragic. . As Wain falls deeply in love, suffers a crushing loss, becomes a famous artist, and loses all of his money and much of his mind, Sharpe handles the film’s dark turns with grace, skillfully managing the tone through the heaviest passages. and through the thorny terrain of portraying mental illness, avoiding what could have become an extremely patchy characteristic.

Along with Colman’s storytelling, the film drew some of today’s big movie weirdos to appear in cameos: Taika Waititi as buffoon editor and Nick Cave as writer HG Wells.

The film can be seen as a top entry into the lore of behind-the-scenes artist biopics like “Finding Neverland” or “Big Eyes,” but it benefits from the fact that most viewers – American viewers at least – won’t. probably not. knowing who Louis Wain was, allowing the story to surprise and delight and save Sharpe from slavishly spending a lot of time on Wain’s iconic artwork or career milestones.

Ahead of Aspen Filmfest, it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month and is set to hit theaters on October 22 before going to Amazon Prime Video to premiere in November.

The gem of a Cumberbatch performance here is likely to be overshadowed by her turn in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”, which critics are hailing strongly and many already consider an Oscar favorite. And in pop culture, this movie and “Louis Wain” are likely to be drowned out by Cumberbatch’s next turn as Doctor Strange in the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe release “Spider-Man,” due out in December. But those who find it and take the time for it will find that “The Electric Life of Louis Wain” may be the litter box choice in this Cumberbatch-filled fall film season.

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