When human faces get to be too much, with their expression of needs, disappointments or anxieties that are beyond your scope to fix, there are always animal faces, which never let you down. 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. But his truest love was for cats, who spoke to him in ways beyond language. They were his loyal companions. He believed they were exceptionally attuned to electricity. And he painted them by the thousands, some rather naturalistic, others anthropomorphized in ways that still managed to capture their essential 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.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, directed by Will Sharpe and starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, combines fanciful elements with some rather painfully realistic ones to capture the spirit 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. (The film has been released in some theaters and is currently available to watch 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 The Electrical Life of Louis Wain does something more complex than merely cover all the bases. 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. (This was at a time when cats were kept largely as mousers but not treated with the same household regard reserved for dogs.) In one scene, as Emily’s illness progresses, we see Louis surrounded by sketch after sketch of Peter. He has produced these drawings to delight his wife but also, perhaps, as a kind of medicine for himself, an elixir to keep himself going. His gift for invention blossoms radically from there, especially after Emily’s death. Toby Jones plays Sir William Ingram, a sympathetic newspaper editor who had long supplied Wain with much-needed work as an illustrator. (Wain worked with great speed, which meant, for example, that after attending a livestock show, he could dash off astonishingly accurate animal portraits from memory.) 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.”
No one knows where genius comes from, and no movie can explain it. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain 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. He loved to be around them, and the movie features many live cats of all colors and types and temperaments; some of their meowing is helpfully subtitled, for those unversed in the language of cat.
There are ways in which The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is likely to attract the damning judgment of being a “conventional biopic.” I’m not really sure what that means. That an experimental yet terrible biopic would be somehow superior? Conventionality is the most venial of all moviemaking sins, if it’s a sin at all. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain 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.