The Electrical Life of Louis Wain bills itself as a true story before the title card, which is useful information; the movie comes steeped in so much whimsy — a near-fatal amount, honestly — that it might otherwise be mistaken for a figment of writer-director Will Sharpe's imagination. Though Wain, played by a blinking, mustachioed Benedict Cumberbatch, really did exist: a well-born Victorian whose personal peculiarities made him an outcast in his class, but whose gift for painting cats of all kinds (in funny hats, on ice skates, around a card table) proved to be a lasting legacy, even if it hardly rewarded him in his lifetime.
It's also a romance, though that turns out to be a little bit of a bait and switch as well, or at least a misdirection. Oscar winner Olivia Colman provides a piquant voiceover that, along with a strange, oscillating soundtrack — theremin? pan flutes? — gives the film (in theaters Friday and on Amazon Prime Video Nov. 5) its framing device, tracing Louis's erratic path from "failed art teacher, failed musician, aspiring inventor, enthusiastic poly-hobbyist and of course part-time illustrator" to the famed pop artist he would become. What it never quite solidifies is exactly how much his eccentricities may have crossed over to an actual medical diagnosis.
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What's made clear is that life and love do not come easily to him. So it makes sense that he falls for the governess brought on to instruct his younger sisters, a good-humored woman named Emily (Claire Foy); she's clever and kind and bookishly pretty, and living inside his house. Most importantly, she seems to accept him as he is without judgment, even if his perpetually high-strung eldest sister (The Death of Stalin's Andrea Riseborough) and the rest of their social set strenuously disapproves of her lowly birth. Together the pair manage to make their own happy home, and Edith even introduces Louis to his destiny via the unassuming kitten that will spark his empire. (Back then apparently, to even think about felines as beloved pets and not feral mouse trappers was considered highly irregular).
Sharpe, a multi-hyphenate who won a Supporting Actor BAFTA last year for his turn in the Netflix drama series Girl/Haji, has a game, gifted cast at his disposal, including the great Toby Jones as Louis's wary but sympathetic editor, Taika Waititi in a drive-by cameo as a brash American newsman, and even dark-lord musician Nick Cave, who briefly bookends the movie as H.G. Wells. And there are flares of droll, dry humor in the screenplay copenned with Simon Stephenson (Luca, Paddington 2). But the film can't seem to stop piling on idiosyncrasies, a kind of willful kookery that mixes uneasily with the more serious elements of personal tragedy and mental illness that run through it.
There's some vague voodoo science in the mix too, mostly of the mad-Victorian-gentleman variety (hence the Electrical in the title). But like Tesla and The Personal History of David Copperfield, two other recent biopics who set their stories firmly in the key of quirk, Louis Wain works so hard to avoid a certain brand of bland Wikipedia storytelling that it threatens to topple under the weight of its own strident originality instead. Foy's frank, unfussy performance feels like fresh air in the midst of all those aesthetic curlicues, and it can't be said that Cumberbatch doesn't commit. (Though he also wears a prosthetic nose that makes him look distractingly like Dennis Quaid at certain angles.) It's undeniable too, that Wain's unfairly obscure life is worth sharing in some form. It's a shame that Sharpe's take — with its strange tonal shifts and soft-focus cat fancies — largely reduces him to a hectic curiosity, and will likely be received as one as well. Grade: C+