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#TIFF21 Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Special Presentations)

September 17, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Director Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a quirky and enjoyable biopic of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose stylized drawings of cats with large eyes are credited with helping turn felines into acceptable house pets. You see, cats were thought of only as rodent-killing vermin at the time in Victorian England, but Wain’s endearing drawings helped change that perception.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the film as Louis Wain, and is a natural fit for the role of a socially awkward but likeable eccentric. When we first meet him, he is an oddball illustrator who also fancies himself as a composer and inventor. He is struggling to financially support his widowed mother and five sisters of varying ages, having been left as the “man of the house.” The first part of the film happily and pleasantly occupies the space of being a quirky romance between Louis and Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), a governess who is hired to help his younger sisters with their studies.

The two adopt a stray cat that becomes the inspiration for his anthropomorphic feline paintings, and a cat picture empire is born. But it’s plagued by Wain’s poor business sense and fraying mental state, as his love story takes a tragic turn. The second part of the film introduces heavier themes of mental illness, as Wain becomes increasingly manic and his strange ideas about electricity and evolution (at one point he expresses his sincere belief that cats will soon evolve to speak English, walk on two legs, and turn blue) start to consume him.

Despite the dark undertones, Sharpe brings an often whimsical feel to the material, matched by some fun cameos and pronounced stylistic touches (including cat subtitles) that add buoyancy to the typical biopic formula. The film is framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the story is told through voiceover narration by Olivia Colman that has an almost literary quality to it. It won’t work for everyone, and there are some odd tonal shifts, but I enjoyed the somewhat unconventional approach. Cumberbatch does appealing work in the leading role, and cat lovers will find parts of it pretty irresistible.

Public Screenings:

Sunday, September 12th – 1:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Wednesday, September 15th – 4:00 PM at Cinesphere IMAX Theatre

Friday, September 17th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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