Whilst the Egyptians saw cats as magical, mythical gods, Victorians saw them as mostly mouse-catchers. The somewhat wretched creatures crawled the streets catching vermin and living off scraps whenever they can.
Louis Wain, however, saw them as marvellous beings. Soulful companions who emote and are charged with all the colours and electricity of a hidden universe. In thousands of colourful and cartoon-like portraits, Wain helped the public see cats, not just as pets, but as the spirituous cohorts they really are.
Director Will Sharpe brings to life Wain’s story for the big screen in, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. The story focuses on the titular artist whoseseemingly “eccentric personality” is at odds with the middle-class sensibilities of Victorian London. His exasperated older sister Caroline, one of five, insists he must keep his family in wealth through steady jobs and marrying rich. However, when the family hire governess Emily Richardson, Louis finds a kindred spirit who helps Louis translate his perspective into his art.
Sharpe has crafted a rather beautiful film which captures the whimsy of Louis Wain’s inner world. Though the story travels through many time periods, from 1881 to 1929, the bulk of the story remains in the late Victorian era which Sharpe has clearly a keen affiliation with. Of course, whilst the movie those note the problems and repression the time had, there is a lot to be celebrated. Particularly invention and innovation, which saw the Victorians make leaps and bounds in progression.
However, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain portrays this time in striking vibrant colours and a collection of equally peculiar characters who we see in snapshots. With cinematographer Erik Wilson (who moves the camera with fluid movements and pirouettes around the characters,) Sharpe allows a whole spectrum to flood the big screen in a whirlwind of Technicolour.
It’s striking and breath-taking and a perfect backdrop for the heart of the story, Louis Wain, because his behaviour may cause salacious gossip around the middle and upper classes, you can see how his purview actually was more in keeping with the time. The movie thusly becomes reminiscent of Armando Iannuci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield and any recent Wes Anderson movie. However, Sharpe’s own inventive nature adds a unique stamp here.
Our Louis Wain is none other Benedict Cumberbatch who has had a slew of performances as the tortured but brilliant genius. Louis Wain is a different character altogether. A nonconformist, who only takes a high-standing job at the paper to quell the naggings of his increasingly irate sister Caroline (played by a brilliant Andrea Riseborough), Cumberbatch has to encompasses this off-centre character whilst not making him a caricature. Utilising every fibre of his body, Cumberbatch’s Wain is energetic and bizarre but not over the top and not bare of vehemence.
Truth be told, it is hard to see Wain as anything but endearing. It’s clear, though he causes stress and upheaval to the family, it’s simply because he cannot communicate as society does. Wain struggles to connect with the world in a very autisim-coded manner, his seemingly “irregular” behaviour feels more acceptable in a modern day viewing. All this is caught in a top-tier Cumberbatch performance where the minutia of an emotional Wain off-set by the outlandish and fervently quirks he has.
It might seem that Claire Foy has taken another role playing “the wife of a brilliant man,” as Emily. This almost straight-talking Governess with a panache for nosey, curious behaviour is immediately taken by Louis. The pair find themselves as equals – able to communicate their darkest, silliest thoughts whilst expressing their love for the dynamic world around them. There is a brilliant chemistry between Cumberbatch and Foy. The latter plays Emily with a frankness that Wain does not have and therefore their differences also become perfect companions until we hit the sorrowful, tragic second half.
Where the film wanes a little is towards the end, stuttering out the last few years of Louis’ life without much, well, life in it. Plus, the opening sequence is really garish. A scene in which our aged leading man, dances in a mental institute in slow motion feels rather at odds with the film that follows – and almost an offensive, biopic trope about severe mental health issues. The biggest problem is that it is intercut with a scene of Louis, his five sisters, and his mother in a Victorian funeral parade. This, in itself, is striking imagery to open the film with, especially when it is juxtaposed with Olivia Colman’s sweary children’s book-like narration. So, splicing one positively indecent scene (the dancing,) with darkly comic and almost whimsical scene (the funeral,)
The Electrical Life of Louis Wainis a whimsical yet emotional affair that is powered by Cumberbatch in a galvanising lead performance and, ahem, electrifying supporting roles from Foy and Riseborough. Plus, you’ll be roused to see some jubilant cameos from a whole array of British (and occasionally Kiwi) actors here.
Above all this acting pageantry and fine filmmaking, the message here is that sometime fine to be on your own frequency – to see colours, shapes, and waves of a hidden world that makes your life brighter. Occasionally, you’ll find someone in tune to those thoughts as much as you are. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is not about seeing your eccentricities as obstacles, keeping locked away and drowning, but rather as tools to reach out and show people how you see the world. Because it is just as valid and important.
Oh, and above all of this, that cats are just bloody phenomenal.
(This review was co-written by a cat named Jekyll, who deleted several paragraphs and just wanted to say: wrwerewirw which we think means four purrs.)