Benedict Cumberbatch plays a troubled genius: again!

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | October 21, 2021

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Opens Oct. 22 in Theatres
3 out of 5

For an actor who gets so much flack for always playing highly intelligent, socially awkward characters, Benedict Cumberbatch is quite adept at finding nuances that make them unique.

In The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Cumberbatch plays just such a character. A fin de siècle dilettante in late 19th-century London (boxing, music and science are among his pursuits), Wain could have gone through life without leaving a mark if he hadn’t revealed himself to be particularly good at drawing.

The eldest of six siblings, and the only male heir, Wain provides for his sisters, none of whom seem likely to be betrothed. The family finances take a hit when he marries the family governess, Emily (Claire Foy, The Crown), who is poor like them, but without the aristocratic background. The union is brief — Emily is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after the wedding — but provides him with the source of inspiration that would make him famous as an artist: cats.

Wain’s anthropomorphized drawings of felines get him published around the world, and allegedly revitalized interest in Brits adopting cats as pets (there’s no actual proof of this, but just go with it). His talent soon leads to obsession, and becomes the catalyst of his anxiety, paranoia and schizophrenic tendencies.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is the classic British period film tailor-made for awards season — impeccably acted, overly manicured, and utterly benign. Wain’s story is an example of light coming out of dark places, with enough cracks and crevices to keep viewers engaged, if not overly invested.

While Cumberbatch is par for the course here, he truly breaks through in Jane Campion’s upcoming The Power of the Dog in which he plays a boorish cowboy. Because highly intelligent, socially awkward, nuanced characters only get you so far.