Artists, like writers, are born with a need, an obsession to do what they do. And Louis Wain was a London-born artist whose father, William Matthew Wain, was a textile trader and embroiderer had an obsession–cats. Seeing his later work in the film, one wishes more was made of this. In “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” Benedict Cumberbatch is by turns focused and befuddled, but always harmlessly and whimsically charming.
The young twenty-something Louis Wain has already determined his subjects of choice. When it seems as if a fellow passenger in a train filled with livestock and people who seem just as dirty and decidedly lax with their public attire as the animals wants him to draw a portrait of a person–Cleopatra, he quickly declares he doesn’t do people. Luckily, Cleopatra is a lap dog and this good fellow gets a quickly scribbled portrait for free. You’ll have to wait a while for the cats to come out, but you’ve already gotten an idea of Louis’ generosity and lack of business sense.
At the office, his lack of business sense and common sense are also revealed. He caused a bit of a melodrama at what should have been a bucolic livestock show by getting into the pen with a bull for a closer look (Bring binoculars, next time!). He doesn’t scoop up an opportunity for a steady job offered by the bug-eyed but kindly Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), Managing Director of The Illustrated London News and future Liberal politician who will eventually sit in the House of Commons in three periods between 1878 and 1895 .
As the only male after the death of his father in 1880, Louis Wain was also the head of a household that includes his mother Felicia Marie/Julie Felicie (Boiteux) and five sisters (Claire, Josephine, Marie, Caroline and Julie Felicie). Despite the financial restraints, the sisters have acquired a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), whom at first Louis objects to until she becomes the object his affection. That causes a scandal because Emily is not only a servant, she is a spinster a decade older than Louis.
Louis and Emily marry (1883) and move to Hampstead in north London where they live as happily as one can when the wife is dying of breast cancer. During this time, the couple find a black and white stray cat who they name Peter and becomes the subject of Louis’s anthropomorphic sketches. In 1886, Ingram (27 October 1847 – 18 December 1924) publishes the first of Wain’s cat illustration as part of the Illustrated London News’ Christmas issue, inadvertently launching Wain’s career as an artist of cats. What is an artist without his motif? His or her obsession?
Wain, a widower, still is supporting his mother and sisters, none of whom ever marry and one of whom is declared insane and institutionalized. Wain himself is shown as becoming increasingly eccentric, possibly deluded and, as ever, without any business sense. The kindness of Ingram comes to an end when gout claims Ingram while dining and the sisters Wain have Louis committed to the pauper ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting where he can create art, but is separated from his inspiration: cats. He was man who was kind and it is through kindness and his own generosity that he is ultimately saved.
As narrated by Olivia Colman, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is an adult fairy tale, with many trials, and a tragedy of a lost love, but ultimately a happy ending that includes the hand of a celebrity–Nick Cave as H.G. Wells (“He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”). Director Will Sharpe, who has been frank about his type two bipolar diagnosis, has previously dealt with mental illness in the British black dramedy “Flowers” (Series 1, 2016; Series 2, 2018). The series was written and directed by Sharpe who also played one of the main characters. Colman played the wife Deborah and Julian Barratt, who played the husband of the titular Flower family, is in this film.
Where the first series looked at depression, the second series focusses more on the subject of bipolar. From the beginning, we did our very best to be as sensitive and accurate as we possibly could in portraying mental illness and to deal with the subject in a helpful and responsible way….
I think that television and film – any kind of fiction really – can affect the way we see the world. We are all impressionable. I know I certainly am. So I suppose I feel that it’s important for fiction to reflect the complexity of real life and to paint a fully nuanced picture, whatever the world is that the story is set in, and whatever the tone. I guess, to put it another way, as storytellers I feel we have a responsibility not to over-simplify.
In this respect, Sharpe, who is Japanese-English, is the right director for this tale about an artist whom people have theorized suffered from either schizophrenia or Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Sharpe’s touch is light and while the film gives glancing mention of troubling violent interactions and an incapacity for dealing with everyday life, there’s still a feeling of humanity in those deemed mentally ill. Sharpe who is credited with co-writing Simon Stephenson from Stephenson’s original script has found ways to provide the gentle glow of empathy for talented individuals who have something to give to society but must be somehow sheltered as the same time.
As an artist though, I wondered at the patterns we see in the later works and if being surrounded by textiles and embroidery from his father’s trade had any influence on Louis Wain and his artistic ideas. In particularly, I was thinking about the introduction of designs from India in the 18th and 19th century, particularly what came to be known as paisley. The paisley designs only became identified with psychedelic art in the 1960s. That makes Louis Wain, who died in 1939, seem ahead of his time artistically.
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is a lovely, whimsical look at an artist and his life. It made its world premiere at Telluride Film Festival and also screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival in the same month of September. It is scheduled for limited release on 22 October 2021 before its online release on Amazon Prime Video 5 November 2021.