The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Artist Louis Wain paints what he sees.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Taika Waititi, Crystal Clarke, Daniel Rigby, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Dorothy Atkinson, Nick Cave, Olivia Colman (voice), Jamie Demetriou, Sophia Di Martino. Directed by Will Sharpe

 

The line between madness and genius is a thin one indeed. It is often difficult to realize that the line has been crossed once we have moved to the wrong side of it.

Louis Wain (Cumberbatch) was a talented illustrator who worked in London in the late 19th century. In 1881, his sister Caroline (Riseborough) hired a nanny for her four younger sisters. Emily Richardson (Foy) came into the household and soon Louis was enchanted. The sole breadwinner for his family including his mother (Nicholls) and five sisters, he had never had a thought for marriage before, and this particular one was scandalous, seeing as Miss Richardson was about a decade older than he, and from a different class strata.

Nevertheless, the two were married, and although their happiness would be short-lived, she did give him a gift that would have repercussions long beyond her years; a stray cat named Peter, soaking wet in the yard of their cottage. As Wain struggled with his grief, he found himself becoming fascinated with cats as a subject for his work – anthropomorphic cats who frolicked on two legs, smoked cigars, served tea, and smiled with big eyes. The drawings and cards of Wain became unbelievably popular, and it is no exaggeration to say that his work helped change the minds of Victorian England as to the place of cats in their household; once thought useful only for catching vermin, they began to be considered as companions and pets, a position they occupy (but don’t necessarily enjoy) to this day.

In the meantime, Louis’ sanity was beginning to slip away. His obsession with electricity and its power began to color his thinking. He began to hallucinate, sometimes horrifically. Ass Louis, a somewhat naïve businessman, had never copyrighted his images, they were copied left and right, leaving Louis nearly destitute. He was committed to an asylum, although once the appalling conditions of his commitment became known, no less a personage than H.G. Wells (Cave) would lead a plea for funds to be raised so that he might live out the remainder of his years in nicer surroundings, which happily turned out to be the case (he would die on July 4, 1939).

Although Wain has largely been forgotten over the years, his images presaged the obsession with cats and their behavior which have helped make the Internet the gigantic waste of time that it is today (I write this unironically, knowing that you, my dear reader, are taking this in on the net). Still, his story is a fascinating one and his impact fairly important. In his time, he influenced cartoons, animation and even cinema. Some of his later images were almost psychedelic in nature, and pop art certainly owes him a debt.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain with an earnestness that would befit Hugh Grant, albeit with less stammering. The cast is impressive, in particular Foy, who gives Emily a certain radiance and who pairs well with Cumberbatch, and Colman, whose narration is at times hysterically funny.

Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson use a bright and colorful palette to frame their story, which is fairly unusual for movies set in Victorian England, which is often portrayed as grimy and grey. Sharpe also ratchets up the poignancy, particularly in the second half. I found myself well-affected by the film, although I would have liked to have seen a coda at the end and perhaps speeded up the pace a bit in the first half. This is definitely a film for cat lovers, as well as for fans of Cumberbatch, who is at his best here. I would daresay that also those who are interested in learning more about artists who have been shoved off to the side as time has gone by should profit well by watching this.

REASONS TO SEE: Highly recommended for Cumberbatch fans and cat lovers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic material, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Colman and Foy have appeared as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Munich: The Edge of War

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