NEW TO THEATERS! Why do the world and the internet love cats? As outlined in Will Sharpe’s biopic, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, we can thank artist Louis Wain for our global feline fascination. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular character, a prolific illustrator who has a particular affection for animals in his drawings.
Louis is able to not only draw accurate portraits from memory but do so in a matter of minutes. He comes from an affluent family, and after his parents died tragically when he was a child, it is up to him to care for his five sisters… none of whom would ever marry. In desperate need of income, Louis is hired by the publisher (Toby Jones) of The Illustrated London News, enabling him to support his family and hire Governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy). This is when we learn that he has a dark side, as he witnessed firsthand the death of his parents and suffered from PTSD, triggered by the destructive force of water.
As the only son, Louis felt an obligation to live his life for the benefit of his sisters. His single moment of defiance came when Louis fell in love and married Emily. The two move to the country, and it’s the first time that he feels happy and content. The couple would take in a feral cat, Peter, and domestic it as a house cat, which was unheard of at this time. But, alas, all good things must come to an end. Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer. To cheer up his dying wife, Louis begins feverishly drawing cat pictures based on Peter. They’d be riding bikes, playing golf, and performing everyday household activities.
When Emily passed, Louis would immerse himself in his drawing and ultimately become a famous artist known worldwide and sparked the global movement of housecats. Yet, at the same time, his personal life would soon collapse on itself. First, Louis’ sister is diagnosed with mental illness requiring medical attention. As the stress and anxiety mounts, then he himself would begin to struggle with what would be diagnosed as schizophrenia.
“…a prolific illustrator who has a particular affection for animals in his drawings.”
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is not all that new, as almost immediately, A Beautiful Mind comes to mind. Most tales of prolific geniuses walk down a very similar path. Then again, this is a true story, and thus, the curse of the biopic. Similar stories are told by people who lived during similar time periods. Sure, you can add elements to liven things up, but it’s no longer a true biopic. Indeed, director Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson follow the formula to a tee… for two hours. There’s really only one bright moment in his life, and it’s all tragedy from there.
What the production does have going for it is the cinematography and Benedict Cumberbatch. First, this is a beautiful and haunting film to watch. Every camera setup is a work of art and ranges in tone from whimsical to tragic. The cat scenes are quite cute, and the nightmare that is Louis Wain’s childhood is dark and foreboding. It’s an emotional feast for the eyes.
Now, Cumberbatch. He’s got the nebbish nerd down pat. Louis reminds me a lot of Alan Touring in The Imitation Game. He maintains a grounded silliness, and his mental deterioration, though done many times, is performed believably and admirably.
There’s much to like about The Electrical Life of Louis Wain — the Victorian setting, cats, Cumberbatch, and its visually stunning cinematography. But it may not be enough to spark enough life into a movie-going audience that wants something new.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…a beautiful and haunting film to watch."