A film shines light on the life of an overlooked and troubled artist.
In the modern era, amusing pictures of dressed up cats engaging in typical human activities had their start with Victorian artist Louis Wain. His rather troubled life is outlined in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a biopic largely propelled by an enigmatic performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, perhaps the best actor currently working.
It would have been fitting for a tale about top-hat wearing and monacle sporting cats and their creator to be a joyful romp, but Wain’s real life was anything but. Like the similar recent film Big Eyes about Margaret Keane, the painter of the once popular images of saucer-eyed children, there is more than a dab of dark drama behind the wildly popular and joy-inducing images.
Electrical Life starts with a funeral, Wain’s father, and is punctuated by further tragedies. The narrator, Olivia Colman, sets the unromantic tone by reminding viewers of the stench of Victorian streets as the fatherless family of Louis, his mother and five sisters walk by in the rain and mud. The narrator also hints at Wain’s obsession with electricity, the new source of power.
There are some upbeat passages and a few clever cinematic touches from director Will Sharpe, but hopefulness for better times is always short-lived. One message that does come across is that Wain helped to change the perception of cats. At one point, sci-fi author H.G. Wells (played by rock star Nick Cave) pops up to praise Wain for his efforts at elevating the lowly feline in popular perception.
While dogs previously had often the subject of paintings, seen with nobility for example, cats had been looked on as working animals suitable for catching mice. Wain almost single-handedly created the perception of the cat as cuddly and lovable.
Like many visionary artists, Wain had poor people skills and no sense of finances. Cumberbatch plays him as someone with a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look, and a stumbling, overly blunt way of talking. He was singularly unsuited to look after his widowed mother and unmarried sisters, none of whom had any income of their own.
Wain also didn’t appreciate his real talent. He could quickly make sketches of anything, sometimes using both hands at once. He instead saw himself as an inventor, composer, and boxer who reluctantly made sketches to pay the bills.
But a Renaissance man he was not. His theories of electricity as some sort of ethereal life force were just bizarre ramblings. He had equally strange notions about increasing cats’ intelligence with this electricity so they could actually talk. (To be clear, he didn’t shock the cats; he meant some sort of telepathic transfer of life energy.) He seemed to see his dressed up cats as a prediction of how they could actually be, and not amusing fantasies.
He did have his supporters. The Illustrated London News editor Sir William Ingram, played by Toby Jones, tries to throw Wain a bone whenever he can, despite Wain’s increasingly strange behavior. Hearst newspaper editor Max Kase (played by Taika Waititi) tries as well, and Waititi offers some much needed comic relief, but Wain is increasingly unhinged by that point and can’t capitalize on his fame.
The film is perhaps not the best introduction to his work. It is seen fleetingly, and some of the reproductions for the film seem a bit slapdash, perhaps to reflect his increasingly uncertain mental state. He did make some almost psychedelic images late in his career, but this was a small part of his output.
But for fans of his work, it shows the other side of the joyful images. They provided Wain with his only escape from a world for which he was not suited.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is now streaming so it’s easy to find the film.
If you’re interested in more on Louis Wain’s life, we’ll also soon be publishing another story about the man and his art.