Director: Will Sharpe
Writers: Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Jamie Demetriou, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Julian Barratt, Sharon Rooney, and Olivia Colman
Before Louis Wain the idea of keeping a cat for a pet was almost unheard of in the UK. The artist Wain and his drawings of cats captured the hearts of the nation. His work was celebrated by many around the UK, and while his work is quirky and whimsical, his life was a lot more tragic, which is what The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is exploring.
To provide for his sisters and widowed mother, Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) works as an illustrator for The Illustrated London News, drawing animals with speed and accurate detail. He falls in love with his younger sister’s governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), and much to the dismay of the rest of his family, they marry. Their perfect life together is short-lived once they discover that Emily has terminal cancer. Louis struggles with the impending loss of his wife, as well as monetary issues. To keep Emily happy, he draws picture after picture of their pet cat, Peter, and she pushes him to get the pictures published, which leads him to great success. After Emily’s death, he falls completely into his work, creating dozens and dozens of pictures, but without copyrighting them, he doesn’t earn a lot and his money issues persist.
Louis Wain is a strange and quirky person at the beginning of the film, he’s introduced to us sitting on a train after a run in with a bull he was throwing peanuts at, almost instantly afterwards he’s learning boxing and then we learn that he has many lost hobbies and is constantly moving to keep his mind away from the darkness that lies underneath. It’s a tragic story but it’s also filled with love and joy. Wain’s pictures have brought a lot of joy to people’s lives and Wain left the world a slightly happier and better place than when he left it, and that’s all anyone can really hope to achieve.
Wain struggles with severe anxiety and looks at the world through a different lens that most people. He sees something that he refers to as electricity, this unseen force that can bring good and happiness or extreme sorrow. He believes that electricity can cure all illnesses and when he first sets eyes on a spot with Emily that would be come special, he describes it as electricity. It’s almost as if that’s where his strange and wonderful cat drawings are coming from, an ether in the universe that he can tap into. His drawings often involved anthropomorphic cats performing mundane tasks, while others were much trippier and more bizarre, while keeping the cat motif of his work. There’s a beauty in his work that’s filled with simple joy and pleasures, that hides his grief and pain at the loss of Emily.
Benedict Cumberbatch gives the best performance of his career as the tortured artist. He’s always been great as historical figures but is in another league with this one. He perfectly captures the pain, anxiety, and quirkiness of Louis Wain. It’s not just the strange and wonderful that’s so great about Cumberbatch’s performance, it’s the genuine sense of loss and grief you get from him. His pain attaches itself to you, until you’re in tears as well. There’s a scene at a boxing match, where he is describing to his friend how he imagines Emily will always be there, so she will be. That electricity can take him back to the past and is absolutely heart-breaking. The love between Louis and Emily feels incredibly authentic, and you feel that same grief.
The visuals are breathtakingly beautiful. It feels like director Will Sharpe has brought a picture-book to life, with uncanny style to everything that feels like Wain’s pictures. It’s gorgeous to watch and accompanying that is a stunning and often otherworldly feeling score from Arthur Sharpe, that’s memorable from almost the first second that you hear it.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an impeccably made film. The direction is wonderful, and Cumberbatch’s performance is career defining. It’s a joyous film that is also full of dark moments and a warm sense of humour. Its an honour to the artist, and his life, as well as a love-letter to cats at the same time.
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