If his name doesn’t ring a bell, you might be more familiar with Louis Wain’s work – detailed, colourful drawings of anthropomorphised cats, with large eyes, facial expressions and doing things you’d associated with people (and sometimes other animals). Incredibly popular in Victorian England from the late 1880s onwards, they also brought about a considerable shift in the way people regarded cats. From being regarded as a general nuisance, they found their way into people’s hearts and their homes. For cat lovers – this writer included – that makes The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain a must-see. But for others? One of the many surprises wrapped up in Will Sharpe’s box of delights biopic is that such an unlikely subject and central character is full of engaging charm and humour.
Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) supports his widowed mother and five sisters through his art, from animal drawings at the country fair to illustrations for magazines and newspapers. He’s in demand for his speedy portraiture, but his unconventional view of the world keeps him from engaging with people – until a governess is hired to look after his youngest sisters. He and Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) fall in love, much to the disapproval of his oldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) and society in general, but during their short marriage, Emily inspires him to develop his art and a stray kitten becomes the foundation for the unique drawings that make his name. But the loss of his wife, and the strain of still having to support his family, brings all of Louis’ old demons back to the fore.
While Sharpe’s film obeys the genre format, taking us on a voyage through Wain’s life, it’s about more than that, taking a deeper dive into his extraordinary mind and his theory about electricity – not the one we take for granted will power our lightbulbs, heating and, increasingly, transport. This is something more personal, that drives us as people, generates love, compassion, even anger sometimes, that spurs us on in our personal endeavours. A long term acquaintance of Wain’s attempts to describe is as “love” in its purest form, but that only goes about half way. Perhaps there isn’t a word for it in the English language but whatever it is certainly gives Louis his momentum, with his ability to draw like lightening – simultaneously with both hands – talk at a million miles an hour and walk pretty much at the same speed.
It’s packed with familiar faces, from the unexpected sight of Nick Cave as H G Wells (another cat devotee) to Taika Waititi and larger roles for Toby Jones and Riseborough as Wain’s fiery and dominant sister who regards him a nothing less than hopeless. Foy, with a mane of pre-Raphaelite red hair, give a beautiful performance as the woman who sees him through different eyes and, together, she and Cumberbatch complement each other perfectly on-screen. But, even among such talented company, Cumberbatch is immaculate – complex, difficult, comical, vulnerable and pitiful. All the way through, he captivates our understanding and empathy with small details and broad brush strokes. Like his character, he is a brilliant artist.
Overflowing with good things, from the psychedelic kaleidoscope sequence designed to give us an insight into the workings of Wain’s mind, to the piquant narration from Olivia Colman and landscapes portrayed as richly toned paintings, The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain defies and conquers expectations, bringing us closer to somebody who, in real life, was notoriously distant. But, if you’re a cat lover, be warned: Peter, the black and white stray who starts his career, will turn your heart into adoring mush. And that’s said from experience.
Biopic, Drama | StudioCanal |Toronto International Film Festival, 11, 12 and 13 September 2021.|Dir. Will Sharpe | Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Toby Jones, Olivia Colman, Andrea Riseborough, Taika Waititi, Nick Cave.