Review: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ at Aspen Filmfest
2 p.m. “My Name is Pauli Murray,” Isis Theatre
4 p.m. Ellenfest Reception, Wheeler Opera House
5 p.m. Ellenfest Program, Wheeler
7 p.m. “Flying Boat” Meet & Greet, Wheeler
8 p.m. “Flying Boat,” Wheeler
The illustrator Louis Wain drew whimsical cats who played games and threw tea parties, creating the original cat memes back in Victorian London and — as the new biopic “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” argues — paving the way for the mercurial animals to be accepted as domestic pets.
The film, which screened Wednesday night at Aspen Filmfest, stars a winning Benedict Cumberbatch as Wain in a performance that is as deeply committed to playing the artist’s eccentricities and quirks the tragic turns his life took even as his cats were celebrated in Britain and the U.S.
“Louis Wain devoted his life to making all of our lives happier and cattier,” the two-time Oscar winner Olivia Colman says in her arch and playful narration early on. “He raised up the cat in society and changed the world for the better.”
Yet the film, directed by Will Sharpe from a script he wrote with Simon Stephenson, isn’t all that interested in the cats or their creation. Wain’s most famous drawings are incidental to the on-screen action here, focused instead on who Wain was rather than what he made. It devotes its first half to his many follies and attempts to financially support his abusive mother and five unmarried sisters and his courtship of Emily Richardson (a charming Claire Foy).
The frenetic stretches of the film that do show Wain drawing show him as a genius illustrator, working with pencil in each hand to create fast and accurate portraits — a skill that lands him a coveted job on the staff of the Illustrated London News.
Wild-haired and over-the-top British, Cumberbatch stomps delightfully through the Victorian scenes — we see him doing old-timey boxing, splashing in a Turkish bath, hobnobbing awkwardly in a billiards hall. “Lous Wain” is never stuffy or staid, despite the waistcoats and bustles and the late 19th century setting. In its clever tone and in those deliciously rendered period scenes, it could work as a double-feature companion to Armando Ianucci’s criminally overlooked 2020 adaptation of “David Copperfield,” both of them British period comedies filmed with a vibrant contemporary energy, staged with luscious production design and performed with a welcome playful sense of humor.
As the whimsical touches in the film stack up — cats do get subtitled dialogue in a few well-timed spots — the film, and Wain’s life, steadily grow more complicated and often tragic. As Wain falls deeply in love, suffers a crushing loss, becomes a famous artist and loses all his money and much of his mind, Sharpe handles the dark turns of the film gracefully, deftly managing the tone through the heavier passages and through thorny terrain of depicting mental illness, avoiding what could have become a wildly uneven feature.
Along with Colman’s narration, the film attracted some of the great weirdos of current cinema to pop up in cameos: Taika Waititi as a buffoonish newspaper editor and Nick Cave as the author H.G. Wells.
What: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’
Where: Aspen Filmfest, Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)
When: Friday, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m.
More info: aspenfilm.org
The film might be viewed as a superior entry in the tradition 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 — likely won’t know who Louis Wain was, allowing the story to surprise and delight and saving Sharpe from slavishly spending much time on Wain’s signature artworks or career milestones.
Before Aspen Filmfest, it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month and is due for a limited theatrical release Oct. 22 before going to Amazon Prime Video for streaming in November.
Cumberbatch’s gem of a performance here is likely to be overshadowed by his turn in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which critics are hailing mightily and which many are already pegging as an Oscar front-runner. And in pop culture, both that film and “Louis Wain” are likely to be drowned out by Cumberbatch’s next turn as Doctor Strange in the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe “Spider-Man” release, due out in December. But those who find it and make time for it will find “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” may be the pick of the litter in this Cumberbatch-packed fall movie season.
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The Aspen Winter Words series will host four in-person author talks at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen and two online-only events.