Director Will Sharpe was tasked with capturing the essence of the eccentric, yet tragic life of Louis Wain, who is hailed as the man who inspired the world to view cats as house pets. His whimsical, colorful anthropomorphized cats and wildly colored illustrations stood in sharp contrast with his estranged family life, his financial struggles, the loss of his wife, and his struggles with mental health.
Sharpe manages to balance the duality of the unfettered joy in Wain’s art, that came from a place of deep, unending sorrow.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain Makes Melancholia Quite Whimsical
Following the death of his father, Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to become the man of the house to provide for his aging mother and four sisters. He is something of a genius, as well as an illustrator, polyhobbyist, and would-be scientist.
While he pursues a career as an illustrator for The Illustrated London News, he hires Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as a governess for his sisters. Having lived what appears to be a mostly sheltered life, perhaps because of his unconventional personality, Emily is his first brush with romantic feelings.
Cumberbatch and Foy create electricity on screen together. Sharpe doesn’t spend much time on the romance, because it was only a handful of years in Wain’s life, their short-lived romance is filled with pining, adoration, and mutual respect. It is treated as a foundation for Wain’s later struggles and the impact brief happiness had on him. Cumberbatch is a real treat to watch as you watch Wain’s body language transform when he is around those that he is comfortable around. He never treats Wain’s childlike behaviors as a mockery, but rather internalizes them for what they are.
This is, perhaps, the best role I have ever seen Benedict Cumberbatch in. He seems perfectly suited for the awkward and tormented personage of Louis Wain and he masterfully draws you in with the innocence of his early years, which leaves you feeling helpless as he struggles later in life. There are so many little moments that tug at your heartstrings. I actually shed a few tears when his sisters dismissed Emily for her perceived impropriety with him and you see him watching from the hallway.
The film never fully addresses the mental illness that Wain suffered from, mostly because it is still disputed as to whether he had schizophrenia or was somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum. There are moments where he spirals, caught in vivid waking nightmares of being lost at sea, drowning, and crying out for his parents. He gets lost in the melancholia of his wife’s death and the later loss of his feline companion Peter. His younger sister Maria’s schizophrenia is, however, addressed, and it really underscored the horrors of how mental health was handled in the early 20th century.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is not quite what you expect from a 20th-century biopic. For all of its morose almost Dickensian undertones, it is filled with the whimsical, brightly colored, and an almost psychedelic world that Wain saw around him. The larger-than-life moments where he sees anthropomorphic cats seated around him or the moments where the cats appear to glitch, add an unexpected and refreshing tonality to the film.
Amazon Studios is set to release The Electrical Life of Louis Wain theatrically and on Prime Video later this year, with the United Kingdom getting it in 2022. It had its world premiere at Telluride, with its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend.
Check out our full coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.