As Olivia Colman’s spry narration whisks viewers back to a storybook fin-de-siècle London, Louis Wain struggles to keep his five sisters housed and fed. His one talent – drawing animals – has never been particularly lucrative. However, when he meets a free-thinking governess and starts to explore more stylised paintings of society’s underappreciated companion – cats – his name grows as his mental health deteriorates.

After a shattering against-type turn in The Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch returns to his familiar ground of eccentric yet oh-so-proper British genius. His Louis is both awkward and self-assured, out of his depths in the business of art and copyright yet seeing no greater purpose than bringing the joy he finds in animals to others. The performance is squarely in his wheelhouse, but when cracks show in this frantic energy, especially when his wife’s illness forces him to slow his plans, the performance proves moving. 

Here, the writing lets the tortured artist down. Wain’s ailments are disputed today; while believed to be schizophrenia, the passage of time and changing understandings of mental health leave many gaps in our understanding of the man. The Electrical Life opts for a bland, sanitised approach that conflates Wain’s unique artistry with his recurring nightmares, visions, and belief in the “electricity” of living beings (a similar subplot involves his sister’s under-explored illness). Genius-as-madness is a disappointingly overused and incomplete trope, and removing the violence (inflicted on and by the real Wain) that preceded the historical hospitalisations makes for a twee, trivialised picture. The chance for light and darkness, creativity and destruction, to coexist with brilliance was here but squandered. 

Foy’s turn is radiant, cameo appearances delight, and every cat oozes charm. But The Electrical Life of Louis Wain lives on the surface – in both whimsy and its understanding of mental illness. 



CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Olivia Colman

DIRECTOR: Will Sharpe

WRITERS: Simon Stephenson, Will Sharpe

SYNOPSIS: A biopic of artist Louis Wain, whose whimsical anthropomorphised cats captivated British high society.