Louis Wain was a genius painter who made wild psychedelic paintings of anthropomorphic cats. He was also deeply mentally ill—was it schizophrenia, or undiagnosed autism? Nobody knows for sure. He did live a fairly eventful life, so it’s natural that a film would be made about him eventually. And here we are, with The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain who, due to his father’s death, has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for his family. He works as an illustrator for Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. He starts a relationship with the governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), whom he has hired to educate his sisters. The relationship causes some scandal due to the class divisions, but they marry. However, she is diagnosed with breast cancer soon afterwards. The couple find a stray kitten and take it in as a pet (which was extremely uncommon in Victorian England). They dub their feline friend Peter, and soon Wain starts drawing cats. His drawings eventually become a sensation, although his detachment from reality exacerbates rapidly.
Will Sharpe brings a whimsical quality to the film to counter the deeply sorrowful story of Wain, and for the most part he is successful. There is clearly an influence of Wes Anderson’s more recent films with the way Sharpe frames shots with sometimes symmetrical compositions. Visually it sometimes looks like a Victorian storybook, which is fitting for the story of somebody who often made his living illustrating them. Occasionally I wish Sharpe would’ve gone more extreme with the hallucinatory aspects of the visuals, but I can imagine that producers may have wanted him to reign it in, because on the surface it’s a film you could take your granny to.
Benedict Cumberbatch gives probably his best performance of 2021 (sorry, The Power of the Dog fans!) because it’s completely in his wheelhouse—the tortured, eccentric British genius who through some extreme circumstances has a tragic downfall ala Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He also physically isn’t that dissimilar to the real Louis Wain, so he is actually very well cast. In her role as Emily, Foy turns in a solid performance, as always. I’ve always liked her as an actress, and I’ve never seen a single episode of the Crown. Andrea Risenbrough plays the oldest Wain sister, and Toby Jones plays Wain’s editor at Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Sir William Ingram. Risenbrough and Jones never really turn in bad performances, so they are their typically reliable selves on-screen. The film has some fun stunt casting, with cameos from Richard Ayoade as the conductor Henry Wood and Taika Waititi being his usual fun self in his turn as Max Kase, who was an editor for the Hearst papers. Nick Cave plays H.G. Wells, despite looking nothing like the real Wells—but in the type of expressionist film they have made, it works fine (Cave is also one of the most notable collectors of Wain paintings, along with David Tibet from Current 93.)
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain may be too whimsical for some, but I’d rather have some whimsy than the typical social realist dross that the British film industry turns out every year. It probably helps if you like cats a lot, and Wain’s art, but even if you are a newbie to his life and work you should get some enjoyment out of the film. I do wish they went into the early experiments doctors did on him and other patients with this “new drug” called mescaline. His work after he was committed, with or without psychotropic drugs, was some of the earliest modern art that you would label “psychedelic”. The cult around Wain really started in the ’60s with the advent of psychedelia. Despite claims from psychiatrists from the 1940s onwards that the more geometrical cats he drew were examples of a mind deteriorating, Wain actually did the vast majority of these abstract experiments alongside his more conventional cat drawings.
The Blu-Ray includes two featurettes: one is more general making-of and the other is about Wain himself. Neither is substantial, but it’s nice that they are included. The film’s trailer, however, is missing in action.