The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Benedict Cumberbatch will look back on 2021 as the year he stretched in both directions. He ventured way outside his comfort zone in “The Power of the Dog,” with massively successful results. In “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” he plays a true life 19th century eccentric Brit, always a recipe for success. Cumberbatch inhabits the eponymous polymath completely, reducing his tall gangling gait to more of a strut as he scuttles about England as an artist, a pugilist, a scientist and a bit of an odd duck.

As the eldest male of the Wain family, Louis is responsible for his mother and sisters. While they are busy seeking husbands, he is having middling success keeping the family afloat. A nanny arrives, a bit sexier than Mary Poppins and soon sparks fly. She is played admirably by Claire Foy (a role distant from her Queen in “The Crown”). Louis marries her, despite their vast difference in social status, and the family thereby descends further into dire straits.

But Louis has an uncanny, two handed talent of capturing portraits (mostly animals) that provides a modicum of income. 

As the newlyweds undertake a bucolic life building a home in the countryside, their affinity for cats takes center stage. Louis’ benefactor and frequent employer is the publisher of an illustrated periodical, and decides to devote two full pages to Louis’ cats for the Christmas issue. 

The result is twofold: the public not openly embraces Louis’ engaging feline portraiture, the public also begins to view cats as not just mousers but house pets. The line between eccentricity and insanity is crossed by Louis at some point.

Director Will Sharpe oversees the unfolding story with a solid hand on the tiller. The production design by Suzie Davis captures the increasingly saturated and appetizing perspective of Louis. Look for a cool appearance by Nick Cave as H.G. Wells, and Olivia Colman (another Queen from “The Crown”) narrates the proceedings.

The Venn Diagram of those who like cats and those who like English period pieces probably has much overlap, but this film should appeal well beyond that cohort.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.