Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

History mainly views Louis Wain as the Englishman who made the world safe for cat pictures. He didn’t photograph them. He drew them, initially with great verisimilitude and then in a more whimsical, anthropomorphic style, but when his feline illustrations first appeared at the end of the 19th century they were novel because cats were not really considered pet material. They caught mice and other vermin and were mostly despised by people of good station, which should have included Louis Wain, since he was born to a noble family, and that, essentially, is the gist of this muddled biopic starring a very animated Benedict Cumberbatch as Wain.

These days, a personality’s like Wain would probably be described as being on the spectrum (he was posthumously diagnosed as schizophrenic), but in Victorian England he was considered an eccentric by those who knew him and irresponsible by his family, which had somehow lost most of their fortune and relies on his talents as a freelance illustrator to get by. This was especially trying for him since his fatherless household comprised his mother and five sisters, and his polymath interests extended to composing operas and inventions based on electricity. Nevertheless, the family tries to keep up appearances, and after they hire a governess, Emily (Claire Foy), to attend to the younger sisters and Louis falls in love with her, the eldest sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), is scandalized because of the class difference. But Louis, whose particular psychologigal constitution makes it difficult to change his mind with arguments based on propriety, marries Emily anyway, and their shared appreciation for things that most people aren’t interested in is most clearly represented by their adoption of a stray kitten, which they name Peter. When Emily falls ill and leaves the story, Louis cannot cope with the loss and turns to drawing cat pictures, because it’s the only way he can keep his memory of Emily alive.

The remainder of the movie explores Wain’s artistic gifts as the man himself falls victim to a larger constellation of nervous disorders, which eventually land him in an institution. Meanwhile, his cat drawings are an international sensation that he can’t quite enjoy because he neglects to copyright them, and while he accumulates friends along the way who try to advise him to his benefit, Wain’s manic predilections come to dominate not only his behavior but the mood of the movie. That said, Will Sharpe’s direction is for the most part light-hearted, and some viewers may find the tonal shifts jarring if not offensive given how they reflect on the subject of mental illness. Cat lovers may appreciate the movie as an historical document without necessarily loving the movie itself. Actual cats don’t get much screen time, only their graphic representations. 

Opens Dec. 1 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Studiocanal SAS – Channel Four Television Corporation

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