Louis Wain’s incredible body of work still permeates magazines and comics today. A rather unknown figure in pop culture, the British illustrator wore many hats – that of an enthusiastic inventor, a failing family man, the face of cats around the world – but none so magnificently as a seer of life. His complex portrayal is made simple and accessible through Benedict Cumberbatch’s elemental performance. Such is his integration with Wain’s soul, mind, and body, that thinking of him as anybody other than him seems folly. Cumberbatch carves an endearing portrait, giving us moments that make us see the loving and tender man that Wain was beneath that macabre disease that has come to define him.’The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ itself never allows the sketch to be relegated to pitiful or mournful.
Make no mistake: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ is a celebration of the life of a revolutionary artist. Having loved it so, we have curated a list of similar works about geniuses that the world knows little about. Happy reading! Additionally, a shout out to composer Arthur Sharpe for his fantastic score, something that should ideally land him an Academy nomination.
1. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
The disintegration of Wain’s mind in ‘The Electrical of Louis Wain’ shares a haunting similarity to John Nash’s in ‘A Beautiful Mind’. The acclaimed mathematician suffered tragic suffering at the hands of the same disease that wreaked Wain’s life. Even as biographies, the two films here are almost the same. Directed by Ron Howard, the film dramatizes the life of John Nash and the paranoia that trailed him like a violent shadow in his adult life.
Due to the nature of the interactions that Nash had in his imagination, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ features stellar special effects and a lot of work that dates back to the Second World War. Cumberbatch’s astute portrayal is matched by Russel Crowe’s, who was even able to score an Academy nomination for acting for the film. The genius of both men was duly rewarded for its unprecedented impact on social and political life but forgotten and maligned after their valiant struggle with the disease. Stream A Beautiful Mind on Netflix.
2. Crumb (1995)
Robert Crumb might be one of the greatest cartoonists living right now. The underground nature of his works has kept him from the mainstream public eye until this strange documentary was released. And really, it is one of the strangest experiences watching his body of work and its real-time reception by polemic and outraged audiences. The very nature of his work is contested by various feminists and gender activists for its bold and sexual depiction of women in his overt fantasy world. His job as an illustrator becomes even harder due to the presence of his dysfunctional family and his own burgeoning quest for physical pleasure.
Make no mistake; Crumb is a genius like no other. The depth in his work is remarkable and only a gateway to the marvel that goes on in his brain. His eccentricity is similar to that of Wain’s and in many ways, equally revolutionary in the world of art dominated by machine-like end products too afraid to disturb the norm. Robert, on the other hand, can do nothing but breach the traditional setup of making cartoons and magazines.
Excessive studies and analyses of his works, as evidenced by the documentary, tarnish to some extent, his artistic gifts and nullify the impact they might have on readers. The beauty of his handmade creations is slightly marred by some untimely incidents during the filming of the documentary but nonetheless shines as the lifeblood of a great feature that deserves your time.
3. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Stephen Hawking is probably one of the only real-life figures portrayed in film on this list who was met kindly by the times his genius was at its peak. Even today, Professor Hawking is regarded as an inspiration and the pioneer of astrophysics and the study of black holes. His place in pop culture is uncontested as an academic genius, unlike Wain whose place has somewhat been lost in the margins.
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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star as the Hawking couple in the film. Their relationship is also depicted as pivotal to the narrative, similar to ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’. Hawking and Wain share a similar prodigal talent in their respective fields, both prompted by simple events that we don’t even usually register as worthy. The pair of films are similar in how they’re both complete life sketches and not cherry-picked parts from anecdotes and random events. Stream it on Prime Video.
4. At Eternity’s Gate (2018)
Willem Dafoe’s rich filmography gained significantly with his turn as Vincent Van Gogh in the film. Despite some priceless performances, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ sees the actor capture the joy the great artist found in painting. Several portraits of Gogh have simply highlighted the torment and pain, commonly associated with artists, that pushed Gogh to paint. None, however, ventured into the escape that it provided him. “I paint to stop thinking”, is what Gogh says in a scene in the film.
The film’s engagement with the viewer is pure and unmediated, just as Gogh’s was with what he saw. Louis Wain painted cats not just as mirror images but blended with the constructs of how he saw the world. The electricity that Wain sees in the air manifests itself in the form of a new light that Gogh seeks and feels.
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Their creative processes distinguished their works. An anthropomorphized cat today is drawn from templates; it can even be computer-generated. But the very first that Wain drew, without the help of modern technology or reference, had a heart and soul that filtered through his eyes and what they saw.
Director Julian Schnabel is respectful of this aspect and makes an intelligent choice to not interfere with this depiction. Gogh’s paintings are reactions to the things around him, with visible elements of abstract strokes from memory. Much of his later work was characterized by riffs of his preceding works, reminiscent of the electricity Wain feels around him. ‘Ate Eternity’s Gate’ is slightly more philosophical and expository than ‘The Electrical’ but both are equally brilliant in portraying their geniuses.
5. Maudie (2016)
Aisling Walsh’s female gaze is important in establishing how Maud Lewis saw the world. Walsh hardly ever shows Maud in a diminishing light or in a position that reflects negatively on her. Despite this, the rough details of her are not washed away with sentiment and emotions, the presence of which is overwhelming in certain scenes. They are a part and parcel of her life choices. Her plain-speaking paintings were not abstract and lauded strokes of genius; instead, they were transportive, cheery, and the idyllic happiness she experienced in life. The film dramatizes her adult life – its ups and downs that defined her. Maud’s worldview is reflected in the content of her crafty creations. The warmth in her character assimilates in the shape of bright colours and nature.
If there is one thing more that is common among all the films here, it is stirring central performances. Sally Hawkings plays the titular character rather well. She doesn’t try to be too showy and not too passive or understated. The poignance in her portrayal goes along well with the grit Maud shows in overcoming arthritis. The sketch is a complete one, like Cumberbatch’s Wain. ‘Maudie’ is interesting not only because of its inspiration’s happy-go-lucky spirit but also because of the informed sense of awareness of the artist herself.
6. The Danish Girl (2015)
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl’ got the attention for all the wrong reasons. Inaccurate historical portrayals are already a touchy subject, but the added element of and focus on an individual makes matters worse. Besides the scrutiny, The Danish Girl is a tender portrayal of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener), who suffers from a gender identity crisis and became one of the first persons to undergo a sex reassignment procedure.
Eddie Redmayne’s winning performance is in equal parts shocking and aboveboard, seldom losing his grip on the cadence he picks from the start. He conjures the female in him with such enviable nuance and skill that you could hardly imagine anybody else doing such a terrific job. Like ‘The Electrical of Louis Wain’, Danish Girl provides a cheerful look into the joy of living a life on one’s own terms. The dismissal of the opinion of others is tough but once conditioned, can lead to an unmatched euphoria as Lili and Wain discover in their lives.
7. Mr. Turner (2014)
The chaos in William Turner’s paintings was an articulation of the jarring industrial revolution that was upon England at the time. His lifetime coincided with one of the most tumultuous times in modern history. The agencies of man had never been quite equipped to harness the power of science to change the world. Tuner captured the essence of being in that momentous uprising.
Mike Leigh’s extraordinary film is structured to showcase the progression from the age of sail to the age of steam through Turner’s eyes. His unorthodox style and eccentric brushwork often transformed traditional, serene-looking canvasses into uncouth pieces of art that hardly conformed to the standards of the public eye.
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Many of his works document the coming of a new age. The most prominent examples are ‘The Fighting Temararie’ and ‘Dover’, both of which are seen in the film. Timothy Spall plays Turner in the film. His focus is not to reproduce a replica of Turner’s personality but his boldness and strong-headedness in public. His astuteness is matched by Leigh in the modicum he chooses to frame the film.
Turner’s love for creating his paintings through his piqued interest in people, culture, and history never gets lost. Their combination sustains ‘Mr. Turner’ beyond just a portrait of a gifted artist to the chronicle of an incontrovertibly new England. Stream Mr Turner on Prime Video.
8. My Left Foot (1989)
Chrisy Brown’s struggle against cerebral palsy is not the subject matter of ‘My left Foot’. It is his will to overcome impossible odds and channel his soul through his works that define the film. ‘My Left Foot’s approach is similar to ‘Electrical Life’, although sans the romanticism. The former is not as stylish or brazen as the latter and relies more heavily on the thespian spirit of its lead and cast. The most difficult task for films like this bunch is to strike a balance between showing the person defying expectations and an exploration of the type of person they really are.
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Daniel Day-Lewis, in his typical style, creates an unmissable characterization of Christy that is as intense as it is compassionate and human. The English actor puts tremendous effort into bringing out Brown’s emotions, insecurities, and tribulations, which are usually upended by the marvel of deformed portrayals. His performance is one that showcases the immense dedication and patience that were required to play the part not for the sake of it, but with a purpose. Like Wain, we see the Brown that is not overshadowed by public perception of the disease.
9. The Imitation Game (2014)
Alan Turning’s portrayal by Cumberbatch is very close to Wain’s. The two personalities share similar traits, most importantly, the state of mind. Their coverage in mass media is slightly different but creates a strong impression. Both find themselves at the end of their rope in terms of how to deal with their internal chaos. Admittedly, The Imitation Game has a superior emotional narrative than ‘Electrical Life of Louis Wain’, based in part on the more contextual subject matter the two films explore.
While Wain struggles with the lack of acceptance from people after his wife dies, Alan struggles with the acceptance of himself and his homosexual tendencies. The two struggle to understand themselves measured against normative measures and standards of behaviour. This closely places the two sketches and result in a similar vein, the films. Although the comparable nature simply doesn’t translate into liking both of them, it is unlikely that you won’t. Stream ‘The Imitation Game’ on Netflix.
10. Pi (1998)
The mercurial talents of Darren Aronofsky have produced some great works in the recent past. ‘Black Swan’ probably takes the cake among them but rest assured, ‘Mother!’, Requiem for a Dream, and ‘Pi’ are no less artistically relevant. His directorial debut might seem to be more of a long, extended conspiracy theory you come across every now and then on the internet. It mingles with various religious and social concepts, from the Torah to the stock market, almost mystical in existence, to decode the puzzle that baffles its protagonist, Max Cohen.
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The tense storytelling sees him chased by a Jewish Rabbi, Wall Street veterans, corporate hounds, and apparitions in his mind. His fight on so many fronts and seemingly as a messenger of God, are not too dissimilar to Wain’s struggles. Schizoid patterns in their works and worldviews are weak distractions from the sanctuary of their creative minds. Although ‘Pi’ is more ruthless and tonally jarring, it is a decent follow-up to ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’.