In The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Benedict Cumberbatch Brings a Famed Painter of Cats to Life

Human faces can become too complicated with the expressions of their needs, frustrations, and anxieties. There are animal faces that will never disappoint you. English illustrator Louis Wain knew that: Through the course of his long and sometimes troubled life, which stretched from the late half of the 19the century toward the middle of the 20th, he drew and painted all kinds of animals, including posh people’s dogs. His true love was for his cats. They spoke to him in a way that transcended language. He considered them his faithful companions. They were his loyal companions. They were painted by Wain in a variety of styles, including some that are more naturalistic than others, while others have been anthropomorphized and re-created to reflect their essence catness. At the turn of the 20th century, Wain’s artwork—showing cats playing golf, wreaking havoc at feline boarding schools, dancing around Christmas trees, playing billiards while indulging in a wee bit of whiskey—became so enormously popular that it should have made him rich. Owing to a combination of family circumstances, bad business acumen and mental illness, that didn’t happen, though Wain’s cats continue to inspire so much joy that it seems he was right about one thing: His models of choice, perhaps not purely electrical but supercharged nonetheless, are mystical purveyors of past and future secrets. When they’re not preoccupied with pawing at us for breakfast.
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Louis Wain: The Electric LifeWill Sharpe directs the movie, which features Benedict Cumberbatch playing the role of Wain. The film combines absurd elements with painfully true ones to convey the essence of Wain. And though there are patches that are sad to watch, it is for the most part a delight, a biopic that brings its subject to life in a way that’s both respectful and open-hearted. You can watch the film in select theaters or on Amazon Prime.

The story, written by Simon Stephenson and Sharpe, covers the fundamental contours of Wain’s life: The sense of duty he felt, after his father’s death, to take care of his mother and five sisters, a responsibility that he bore for most of his life; his brief but presumably happy marriage to the governess, Emily Richardson (played, with owlish vivacity, by Claire Foy), who’d been hired to educate his little sisters; and his eventual mental-health struggles, which were most certainly not caused by his wife’s untimely death from cancer—though who ever knows what role great sadness plays in our lives?

Yet Louis Wain’s Electrical LifeDoes more than just cover the basics. It shows how one particular cat—a tuxedo named Peter, adopted by Louis and Emily—inspired a love for all felines that sparked not just a remarkable career, but a dazzling way of seeing. It was a time in which cats were not considered household pets and were kept mostly as micers. In one scene, as Emily’s illness progresses, we see Louis surrounded by sketch after sketch of Peter. These drawings were not only created to please his wife, but perhaps also as a form of medication for himself. His gift for invention blossoms radically from there, especially after Emily’s death. Toby Jones portrays Sir William Ingram. He was a kind newspaper editor, who provided Wain much-needed illustration work. Wain was a fast worker, so he could create astonishingly precise animal portraits by recalling details from a show. As he surveys this new work, these jubilant and wholly original images of cat highjinks, Ingram remarks, “How you’ve managed to capture images of such delight, at such a dark time, I do not know.”

The Electric Life of Louis Wain
Jaap BuitendijkClaire Foy, Benedict Cumberbatch and The Electric Life of Louis Wain

There is no way to explain genius. Louis Wain’s Electrical Life doesn’t try, though it does give us a sense of this sensitive and socially awkward man. Cumberbatch plays Wain with a sense of stammering vulnerability; he’s so guarded around all humans except Emily that it comes to make perfect sense why cats, so secretive, watchful and thoughtful—though also, as Emily points out, often completely ridiculous—would come to mean everything to him.

The “descent into madness” part of any artist biopic is always the hardest to sit through, and Sharpe makes that portion of the film mercifully brief, without diminishing the significance of Wain’s struggles in real life. In his later years, Wain drew extremely fanciful cat faces in vivid psychedelic colors—these were later, and falsely, deemed by psychiatric professionals to be evidence of his declining mental state. In reality, they were most likely just another branch of his art, a way of reaching into the future—with their amused, all-seeing eyes and wild swirls of fur, these cat images, painted in the early 20th century, do seem far ahead of their time. But most of all, they are simply part of Wain’s endless exploration of the essence of cat. They were his favorite companions, and the movie includes many cats from all walks of life.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

There are many ways to do this. Louis Wain’s Electrical Life is likely to attract the damning judgment of being a “conventional biopic.” I’m not really sure what that means. Is it possible to make a terrible, experimental biopic that is superior? Conventionality is the most venial of all moviemaking sins, if it’s a sin at all. Louis Wain’s Electrical Life is a movie for everyone who has ever loved Wain’s work, as well as for anyone who draws or paints with pen, pencil or brush, who lives a life of seeing by hand. But mostly, it’s for anyone who has ever seen a glimpse of the whole world in a cat’s gaze. That’s the electricity Wain was talking about.


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