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The Electrical Life of Louis Wain – movie review

Movie: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Released: November 2021

Rating 3.5 stars

In what seemed like mini Cumberbatch Festival, just after watching Benedict Cumberbatch play a cowboy in Jane Campions “Power of the Dog”, we were delighted by this biography about the life of eccentric British illustrator Louis Wain in which he plays the titular role.

This quirky film directed by Will Sharpe—whom we last saw in a role in the TV series Giri-Haji—traces the troubled life of a fascinating man. It tells of his obligation to financially support his mother and five sisters following the death of his father (a burden he bore throughout his life), his short-lived but enormously happy marriage to the family governess Emily Richardson and then his mental-health struggles which were attributed to his wife’s untimely death from cancer.

Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the role of Louis Wain, who found a career as an illustrator for a news publication at a time when photography had yet to become the medium for visually portraying the news. He loved to draw animals, where human beings and their complex expressions and temperaments were too difficult a subject matter to capture. But his favourite subject became the cat, who spoke to him through their “electrical energy”.

Wain’s obsession with drawing cats started with Peter, a tuxedo cat adopted by Louis and Emily in their cottage, providing an outlet and distraction from Louis having to deal with Emily’s terminal illness. Egged on my Emily, who said to him as she accepted the end of her time with Wain was near, “The world is beautiful, and you’ve helped me to see that too. Just remember – however hard things get, however much you feel like you’re struggling, the world is full of beauty. And it’s up to you to capture it, Louis. To look and to share it with as many people as you can. You are the prism through which that beam of life refracts”.

His inventiveness for depicting cats in human-like scenarios was legendary and anyone who is a cat lover would undoubtedly have come across at least one, if not many, of Wain’s cat drawings.

Louis’s sponsor, the form of sympathetic newspaper editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), provides him with the opportunity to publish his cat drawings, not just bringing prominence to his unique style but also transforming the way the public saw cats at the start of the 20th century. Louis Wain’s cat drawings, and how they shifted the appeal of cats to humans, eventually paved the way for cats being kept as domestic pets where they were previously seen as pests or, at best, only useful as “mousers”.

Alas, Wain’s naiveté meant that he never copyrighted his work and so never enjoyed financial success from his very popular work and he continued to be burdened by both his mental health and obligation to support his sisters for the rest of his life.

Although the family’s governess was meant to be ten years older than Louis, in the film she is played by the effervescent Claire Foy who is 8 years younger than Cumberbatch. Not one for abiding by conventions and social rules, his association with the governess was hugely frowned upon but he nevertheless stuck by his guns and proceeded to marry her. And then tragedy would strike so soon within 6 months of their time together, undoubtedly affecting his already delicate mental state.

Olivia Colman lends her voice as narrator, in a light-hearted introduction to the social context of the story. Taika Waititi makes a cameo as Max Kase.

The overall movie does get a bit muddled in trying to convey the sense of whimsy, imagination and almost naïve wonderment of Wain’s mind against the real tragedies that befell Wain and his family. The use of dark comedy sometimes awkwardly trivialises the gravity of the death, loss and mental illness which are the key themes that run through Wain’s life.

Critics haven’t taken well to the biopic. But as cat lovers we were suitably entertained and enamoured with this movie, especially at the end credits when we are presented with a sampling of Wain’s enduring and much-loved work.