(Written by Allison Brown)
Looking for a film with a Burtonesque vision and similarities to 2014’s Big Eyes? The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, based on a true story, will hit the spot. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays lead Louis Wain, has been receiving raving critic reception for his performance in another TIFF film, The Power of the Dog. I would argue that this Amazon selection is just as worthy of Oscar buzz.
I will admit I was not familiar with Louis Wain, a historical artist who specialized in illustrating cats, prior to watching. The majority of the film’s audience will most likely be in the same boat. According to a foreword from director Will Sharpe, many claim he is the reason we keep cats as pets today. Apparently, in Wain’s time, owning a cat was considered eccentric and weird; they were equated to vermin like rats. Personally, I am a dog person more than a cat person, due to my beloved yorkie, Lexi. However, it is impossible to deny how influential felines are in the world today.
The film follows Louis Wain and his many sisters in their trials and tribulations through life following the passing of their father. Louis, as “the oldest and male-est,” is now responsible for the finances of the household, but he is not at the maturity level to take this on. For some time, he works as a freelancer for Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) of The Illustrated London News, primarily drawing animals to run in print. Although somewhat of a prodigy, completing an illustration in the blink of an eye, Louis is difficult to work with, and he always manages to cause a bit of “ridiculous chaos.” Wain dips his feet into a bit of everything as a “failed art teacher, failed musician, aspiring inventor, and enthusiastic poly hobbyist,” but rarely sticks with anything. He sees illustration as a mere paycheck and instead has electricity patents in the forefront of his mind. After a bit of coaxing from his eldest sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), Louis agrees to accept a permanent, yet very underpaid, position as a staff illustrator for the magazine.
Once settled in this new role, he hires a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), to teach his younger sisters, whom he eventually falls in love with and marries. Apparently, this was inappropriate during Wain’s time. Richardson is fired, and the Wain family status in society is permanently tarnished. Despite this, Emily is absolutely endearing; she even dresses similarly to Mary Poppins! Emily peculiarly carries “rocks with [her] everywhere to make [her] feel at home,” which end up sprinkled far and wide in many scenes in the film. Wain’s sisters obviously do not approve of their love, which causes a large rift in their familial relationship. Despite this, Wain continues to send the family money after he moves out with Emily.
I found the lower social caste subjugation of teachers (or governesses as named in the film) to be a frustrating revelation. Watching the Wain sisters, whom were not even well off themselves, treat Emily so poorly, as if she were the help is awful. Perhaps this 19th century perception is responsible for the poor salaries that teachers still receive today. Both my father and brother-in-law are teachers; they take a lot of work home with them and have a profound influence on the life of their students. Teachers are not cherished enough for their vast intelligence and work ethic. I appreciate Sharpe’s willingness to shine a light on this appalling history.
Whilst dealing with all of this responsibility, Louis suffers from debilitating visions of raging storm waters and anxiety. He holds electricity in high regard as a theme in his life, not in the literal sense, but in a metaphysical energy appreciation. To Wain, “electricity [is] something so extraordinarily strange that the human mind [is] barely able to even comprehend it.”
Years later, Emily falls ill, and Louis’ career loses steam as photography evolves into the primary publication art over illustration. After taking time off to spend with Emily, the two discover a kitten shivering in the rain and take him in, eventually calling him Peter. Peter becomes like a child to the couple; they teach him how to walk up the stairs, on a leash, and dress him up with adorable glasses. This reroutes Wain into an artistic obsession with the cat, perhaps as a means to deal with his preempted grief. Slowly, he takes in more and more cats. One of my favorite moments of the film is a scene where one cat, Bridget, receives subtitles for her meows. The line, “I do my best, but I am cat,” will make me laugh for months to come. It is so cheesy, but the execution is fantastic. Louis, at the behest of Emily, brings the cat paintings to Ingram to publish, and he agrees, despite their quirkiness. Without giving too much away, the cat art becomes a sensation over time, expanding feline love from the UK, to the US and beyond.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain overall is a delight and bound to brighten anyone’s day! The ensemble cast is just as stacked and successful in their performances as Cumberbatch. Claire Foy is especially wonderful as Louis Wain’s unconventional wife, Emily. Sharon Rooney (who I have been a big fan of since her starring role in My Mad Fat Diary, as Josephine), Andrea Riseborough, and Hayley Squires (as Marie) all deliver charming dramatic turns. The narration in the film, performed by the lovely Olivia Colman, is sophisticated and eloquently written. Cinematography is absolutely stunning, almost emotionally so. This makes sense given the most profound of scenes, which includes spanning autumnal oak tree foliage, is provided when emotions are most heavy. Emily mentions these trees “live for 1,000 years: 300 years to grow, 300 years to live, [and] 300 years to die.” Everything about the movie is executed with clear compassion and appreciation for the real-life titular man.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain will bring more color to your world when it releases in theaters October 22nd and on Prime Video November 5th.