‘Louis Wain’ a delightful film about creativity, art, love, cats
Here is a cat film almost fine enough to make us forget “Cats.” Based on the true story of Louis Wain, a turn of the 20th century artist and illustrator who helped popularize cats as pets in late Victorian England and the world, Will Sharpe’s delightfully eccentric “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” tackles such subjects as creativity, human-animal relationships, 20th century art, the class system in Britain and love. The film does this through the lens of the life of Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch), a young-ish gentleman living in genteel poverty with his mother and five sisters, including the hardpressed, maternal, eldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) and the mentally unstable younger Marie (Hayley Squires). Wain, whose first name is pronounced “Lou-ie” (his mother was French) made the world “happier and cattier” we are informed by the narrator (Olivia Colman).
Wain himself has only a light grasp on reality, getting into odd scrapes. But he is a remarkably gifted artist, who can draw simultaneously with both hands and create an excellent caricature in under a minute or two. Because of this talent, Louis is hired in opening scenes by Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), who will become a lifelong friend, as an illustrator for the Ingram’s Illustrated London News. Louis and Caroline hire Miss Emily Richardson (Claire Foy, “The Crown”), a decidedly Mary Poppins-like governess, to teach the children. Wain, we are informed by the narrator, experiences something that “sparkled through his loins” with the arrival of the young woman in the household. Perhaps, it is the electricity he keeps talking about, something that sounds like “the Force” in the “Star Wars” films. You can surely see that electricity in Louis’s illustrations of oddly animated, almost R Crumb-like cats. You can also feel it in his dealings with the lovely, feline, Miss Richardson.
But he is a gentleman, who is self-conscious about his cleft lip, and she is of “the servile class,” and their love is denounced. It’s all very “Downton Abbey.” During their courtship, Louis asks Emily to consider “the dark, screaming hurricane” that is his mind. But she loves him nonetheless, if not because of it, and they adopt a blackand-white kitten and name it Peter. Tragedy befalls the happily married Wains, as well as young Marie. But the basis of the film is in such happy subjects as art, talent, quirkiness and cats that the suffering is placed in context and does not overwhelm the story.
Indeed, how could a film with so many, oddly lively cat illustrations be terribly sad? Wain also offers his services as a dog portraitist to members of the upper classes. Emily observes that cats are “silly, cuddly, lonely and ridiculous,” not unlike us. Louis foresees a time when cats will evolve into blue-colored bipeds who will be able to speak to us. His illustrated books of cat stories sell well and help support his unmarried sisters. But his hurricane of a mind torments him and makes him run outdoors in a lightning storm. He is terrible with money. He ends up, if not happily ever after, at least in cat-like contentedness.
Sharpe, who previously co-directed the 2011 acclaimed indie film “Black Pond,” also co-wrote “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.” He brings an illustrative, Wain-like visual style to the film. Foy is charming as Emily. With “The Courier,” “The Mauritanian,” “The Power of the Dog” and this, Cumberbatch, whose mustaches resemble whiskers, is on a remarkable mid-career roll.
(“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” contains mature themes and profanity.)