Louis Wain is unlikely a name you are familiar with. Well, I certainly wasn't aware of this artist who primarily painted cats. The paintings are whimsical and joyous. The biopic about him is less so. However, it still manages to be affecting at times. Sure The Electric Life of Louis Wain sits in typical biopic territory but Benedict Cumberbatch is strong in the role and the film's heart is strong.
Louis Wane was a known eccentric and as the film presents him, he had mental problems. The film doesn't dig deep into his mental state but given his family history, it seems likely. Early on, the film is quite charming and comedic. Wain is just quirky and antisocial before a descent into a mental disorder. In 1881, Wain meets an editor who takes him on as a staff illustrator. The editor is played by Toby Jones. Wain does this to help his five younger sisters. His eldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) is the most practical of the bunch but she is pulling her hair out with worry.
They hire a governess, Emily (Claire Foy), and soon Wain falls for her. Foy brings real charm and heart to the film. The tracing of this important relationship in Wain's life provides the film with its best moments. The 40 or so minutes around their relationship are touching and humorous. Wain finds peace with Emily. Their relationship breaks class roles and puts the family in social disgrace. They marry and live in peace and harmony until Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer.
With Emily's death, cats enter Wain's life. Emily and he had taken in a cat as a pet, something unheard of at the time. To honor her and keep some joy in his life, he begins painting cats. This section sees Cumberbatch and Foy having real chemistry. Foy is sweet and dryly funny in the role. Cumberbatch traces Wain's shift from frantic to calm with Emily's presence. The film forgets the biopic mechanics here and it becomes a moving romance for a while.
The rest of the film seems like a Wikipedia article. It moves through the big moments of Wain's life but never quite matches the sections with Foy in them. With 50 years being covered, the film has to result to using narration to fill things in. We get a series of unexpected cameos, Taika Waititi and Nick Cave, and a number of jumps in time. It is pleasant enough but lacks the effectiveness of the Emily years and the originality of Wain's work. In the end, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is entertaining enough and you do get to see a lot of great cat paintings.