Eccentricity plays its hand in art more often than not, especially the literal artist and the functionality of them in the working world. There is no doubt that Picasso was off his rocker, that Ralph Steadman’s ink flourishes are proposed solely on mania and sin. They are great artists because they have wholly overwhelmed themselves in their work. Just look at how many features there were on Vincent Van Gogh. Benedict Cumberbatch starred in one of those for the BBC, and now he features as another artist, Louis Wain, in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. The early 1900s burst through with feverish intent and excitement in a film that mumbles and drones through its script like it has other places to be.
That they do. A stacked cast is hard to come by, harder still to see them work together effectively and entertainingly. The great mystery is still how Cumberbatch is landing lead role after lead role when the last bit of real quality from the man came from The Imitation Game, and even then, that is pushing it. His eponymous role is a soundly cast choice, but the effectiveness of director Will Sharpe to coax that talent out of Cumberbatch is questionable. He plays the disconnected mind, the social recluse but the genius artist that so many put up with because of his talents. Why he is featured getting his head clattered in at a boxing ring is just one of many strange choices Sharpe makes. But the strange choices are in tune with the man he looks to adapt, they are connected to the story elements and add little details to the harsher scenes or stronger mixes of character and script functionality.
Having Cumberbatch briefly spar and then appear in the next scene, staggering around with a bloody nose as he explains to his boss why he’s throwing peanuts at bulls is a fascinating scene. Not just because it is shot well or styled to the period with great use of iconography without excess, but because the strange state of affairs for Sharpe’s feature reflects the titular character. Richard Ayoade and Toby Jones, those stalwarts of British feature filmmaking, appear and are effective in their supporting roles. They give credence to the fairly strong leading role, which Cumberbatch does his best with. The Imitation Game may be a far and blinking light, but he polishes off his acting chops with The Electrical Life of Louis Wain and turns in some solid work alongside an undersung Andrea Riseborough performance and an excellent Claire Foy role.
Had The Electrical Life of Louis Wain been bold enough, it could have been as strange a biopic as Ethan Hawke’s Tesla, but no such luck. Sharpe’s work, while visually impressive and varied, takes the safe risks, as antonymic that may be. Is there risk in showing the slow-motion cavalry of Wain’s family and friends marching through the rainy streets? Not particularly, because while it looks good, it is as empty as every other scene in a film that hopes to show the disintegration of the mind and the effects of it not just on the subject, but those suffering alongside him. An ample enough time and defiantly treasurable because of its desire to enlighten the minds of many with the genius of one, unsung artist. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has its place, the biopic destined for slow-burn success.