Movies based on real people and events can be hit or miss. However, if you enjoy biographical dramas set in the Victorian era and are particularly fond of cats, Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain may be for you.
Born in 1860, Louis Wain was a prolific British artist most known for his paintings and drawings of anthropomorphized cats. At the age of 20, following the death of his father, he became the de facto head of his family including his mother and five sisters. Up until this time, cats were regarded as nature’s pest control, considered diseased and unclean, and were certainly never kept indoors as pets. With the popularization of Wain’s cat-centered art, animal rights were advanced for cats in particular. He was also what many considered an eccentric, speaking openly about bizarre theories regarding electricity and its impacts on the natural world.
Benedict Cumberbatch is truly in his element in this role, as he has become a specialist in humanizing eccentricity. Cumberbatch’s performance is a poignant reflection on grief and loss in a time when there were no words to describe this process. As an actor, Cumberbatch does a superb job in portraying mental illness, facial difference, and neurodiversity in a film set in a time where these were not understood nor spoken about openly. Although there is modern debate as to whether Wain suffered from schizophrenia caused by a parasite in cat feces or if it is more likely that he existed on the autism spectrum, Cumberbatch always returns to the man’s humanity.
The strength of the film is most clearly seen in the chemistry between Cumberbatch and his fellow actors. Claire Foy shines playing Louis Wain’s wife Emily Richardson. Their quiet moments on screen together are the movie’s strongest aspect. Andrea Riseborough steals every scene she’s in as Wain’s oldest sister, Caroline. She gives voice to a woman who had to fight for her place at a time when women were overlooked and rarely taken seriously by men.
Toby Jones was absolutely made to portray Wain’s long-suffering but ultimately encouraging and supportive patron, Sir William Ingram. Taika Waiti continues his mastery of the cameo appearance and is a welcome surprise that adds a terrific character beat to the movie. No doubt Marvel fans will appreciate this meeting of MCU alumni in completely different roles. The Crown’s Olivia Coleman is so captivating as a narrator that she becomes a character in the movie herself.
With an occasionally self-indulgent script and terrifying flash-back and nightmare sequences that can pull the viewer out of the movie completely, director Will Sharpe had no easy task in making this movie. However, he manages to find a way to ensure historical accuracy while also making a movie that moves along at a comfortable pace and maintains its character throughout.
The incredible outfits worn by Cumberbatch in this film, including one stunning period-accurate swimsuit, are a credit to costume designer Michael O’Connor and they add a richness that is palpable. The score by Arthur Sharpe is so well-suited and lifts the movie up to another level. The cats, real not CGI, add such comfort to the whole movie, the viewer may only regret not seeing more.
Although historical biopics may not be for everyone, viewers may find The Electrical Life of Louis Wain ultimately offers a perfectly pleasant journey for cat lovers everywhere.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is available in theaters.