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Louis Wain, cat painter, illustrator, hobby inventor, hobbyist and would-be musician, was an unusual man. He was as scruffy as his hair, spoke a mile a minute, and moved kinetically through life. (He swims convulsively and plays the piano with his feet, which proves this). Wain became obsessed with using electricity for practical use, and later believed that cats could conduct it. His life story gets an unconventional retelling in the peculiar biopic “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”, which was co-written and directed by Will Sharpe.
The drama, cheekily told by Olivia Colman, focuses on Wain’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) life from the 1880s to the early 1920s. She explains that after his father’s death, Wain was responsible for his five sisters and his mother. He’s not very responsible, however – that duty falls to his formidable sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), who runs the chaotic Wain household with an iron fist. Unfortunately, Louis is not interested in work, preferring to make drawings, write operas and try his hand at boxing, all to Caroline’s annoyance.
When Louis was offered a position as an illustrator for a newspaper published by Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), he initially turned it down. But when he realizes his job will pay for his sister’s governess, Emily (Claire Foy), he changes his mind. At their first family dinner together, Louis and Emily glare at each other and signal that, pardon the pun, they are kittens in love. Of course, proper society looks down on gentlemen associating with the lower classes, but neither Louis nor Emily bother. (Caroline, of course, not only takes care of the family’s finances, but also of their reputation).
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“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” spends much of its first half advertising between Louis and Emily. Their romance is more embarrassing than a whirlwind as he fears that she doesn’t like him because of his severe harelip and recurring nightmares. (Both are brought to life alive). Emily is more than pleased to hang out with Louis, however, and a trip to the theater to see “The Tempest,” which sparked his fears, cemented her appeal despite wiggling her tongues.
However, the couple’s happiness is short-lived as they receive bad news. Things improve a bit when Louis and Emily pick up a cat they call Peter. Peter brightens their spirits and inspires Louis’ talents. And before the tragedy strikes, there is a moving scene in which Emily and Louis discuss their mutual appreciation.
Sharpe films all of this in a style that emphasizes the eccentric. He uses Dutch angles, an unsteady camera (to convey discomfort) and iris to emphasize emotions or suggest a memory. He uses the theremin to deliver a fancy score. There is also meowing in the soundtrack and some of the cats’ dialogues are subtitled. In its wildest form, Sharpe fills the screen with kaleidoscopic images to indicate Louis’ deteriorating mental state as grief, financial pressure, and other things that overwhelm him. (One of his sisters also has mental health problems).
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“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is deliberately more of a fable than a biopic. The film makes its arguments about Louis’ bad decisions – like his failure to secure a copyright on his work – but focuses more on showing his resilience. His idea of going to America is good in his head, but the reality of his lectures suggests otherwise. Sharpe lets Louis, who humanized cats in his illustrations, imagine cats’ heads on people in the audience. Louis also experiences an unsettling, nightmarish moment on the ship on his journey home. In addition, scenes of Louis chasing electricity seem to underscore his madness.
If Sharpe’s treatment of his subject is fanciful at times – a National Cat Club meeting is whimsical – it is always respectful. A late scene in the film where Louis reunites with Dan Rider (Adeel Akhtar), a man he met decades earlier, is quite poignant. Louis’ character is celebrated for being different throughout the film. As HG Wells (Nick Cave) stated on a radio show, Louis Wain “dedicated his life to making all of our lives happier and feline … He has changed our world for the better.”
Cumberbatch embodies Louis Wain in the same way as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” using his tics and idiosyncrasies to show his genius and fragile state of mind. It’s an unbiased performance that never feels mannered or fussy (even when it should be). When Wain talks to his cats, it’s not a cute affectation, but a man making a connection that informs his world, others are damned. To help, Claire Foy captures Emily’s bizarre boldness, which is a good balance to Louis’ frenetic nature. And Andrea Riseborough is great and expresses considerable contempt with just a sidelong glance.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is uneven and feels a little overly calculated, but it is an entertaining homage to its theme. Additionally, the film’s credits feature some of Wain’s artwork that will be catnip for some viewers.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is available on November 5th on Amazon Prime. Check out the trailer below on YouTube.
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