Director: Will Sharpe (UK). Year of Release: 2021
1881, the train back from the market show in Andover or somewhere like that. The carriage is full of various animals. A man sits in the corner with a sketch book. He looks a little worse for wear, the result of trying to get a bull to allow him to approach and sketch him by offering peanuts (apparently not a recommended strategy). His companion in the carriage asks him how much he’d charge to sketch the companion’s Pomeranian dog. No problem, he’ll do it for free.
Cut to: a meeting in the Illustrated London News. The sketch artist – Louis Wain – is carrying a black eye as a result of his involvement in some amateur boxing. He needs a job to support his large family. His father recently died and as the oldest and malest sibling, he is expected to keep them in the lifestyle to which they’ve been accustomed in a large multi-storeyed house. In fact, they’ve just employed a new governess, Emily Richardson, to teach the younger girls.
The paper’s editor isn’t sure that he needs another illustrator, but Louis convinces him by ambidextrously sketching his portrait in no time at all. There’s something charming and needy about Louis, besides which he appears to be prepared to work for below union rate and with no guarantee of his working conditions. At first Louis refuses the job, but eventually financial need and family pressure has him coming back.
Benedict Cumberbach is hardly stretching himself playing an eccentric posho. Louis has applied for dozens of patents, all of which appear to have been unsuccessful. He is a passably good artist and seems to have decent enough skills on a piano. But he has few social skills – it’s the sort of character which would be played by Hugh Grant if he were only a little more self-confident. The fact that we don’t immediately dismiss Louis as a walking cliché is down to Cumberbach’s acting.
And yet the cliché of a tortured genius is always there in the background. You feel that if the film were set in the present, Louis would be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, but due to its Victorian setting he’s just seen as being a little odd. Either way it corresponds to a largely discredited theory that artists owe their talent to a neurological disorder.
Wain invites Emily to the theatre – accompanied by most of his sisters of course – to a performance of The Tempest. It’s remarkable that he drew up the courage to be that forward. Towards the beginning of the play, Louis rushes off, triggered by a recurring dream of being drowned. Emily rushes off to rescue him. She’s been looking through his things and has come across a sketch book where he expresses his innermost thoughts.
Emily has already shown herself to be pretty educated for a gurl, and within about 3 years Louis asks her to marry him. They are set to live happily ever after until she gets diagnosed with breast cancer. On the day of the diagnosis, Louis and Emily decide to adopt a cat which they call Peter. The idea of cats as pets has still not taken on, and it’s seen as one of their weird foibles.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain gives a picture postcard depiction of a specific part of Victorian British society – it was not remotely surprising that before the film starts we had a trailer for the new Downton Abbey film. More surprising perhaps is that we did not have a single scene of someone driving past Big Ben. It’s that sort of heritage film which should seek sponsorship by the British tourist industry.
But it’s not just showing a heritage Britain, it is also showing a very rich Britain. We are expected to accept that Louis must work to support his many sisters. Although Olivia Colman’s laconic narration may poke gentle fun at the vainness of the Wain sisters, this is never seriously challenged. This is the sort of girl boss feminism which wants men to subsidise all their female relatives while having no sympathy for women who have no alternative to actually working for a living.
Remember that this film starts in the same decade that the Match Girls’ Strike showed that working class women didn’t just have shitty jobs, but were prepared to fight to improve their working conditions. The assumption that eccentric men must deny their desires so that they could provide for their pampered family was only ever an option for the rich. The hard choices offered in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain were never an option for most of society.
This does not mean that the film is badly acted, nor that it lacks a certain charm. If you take it as what it is – a portrait of a Britain that was only ever available to a select few. It is, at the very least diverting. But ultimately, it has nothing to say, and what it would like to say is of only limited interest. But there are some pretty cat pictures to see.