Movie: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Director: Will Sharpe
Genre: Biopic, drama
Medium: Amazon Original (streaming and in theaters)
Louis Wain was an artist in the employ of The Illustrated London News, one of the most popular newspapers in Victorian England, when advances in photography and printing made it possible for newspapers to regularly include photographs in their pages.
Demoted from staff illustrator to contributor, Wain’s professional skills seemed destined for obsolescence when he and his wife, Emily, returned to their cottage one rainy afternoon in 1886 and heard the distressed mews of a kitten. They found an adorable tuxedo cat soaked and shivering in their garden, brought him inside and were instantly smitten.
They named the baby Peter, and in the months that followed Wain made the growing kitten the subject of most of his idle drawings, sketching him in various situations and with increasingly anthropomorphic features. Wain’s cat sketches were only intended for his wife, but when Sir William Ingram, editor at The Illustrated News, saw the whimsical cat drawings he commissioned Wain to fill two pages with cats as a special feature for the paper’s Christmas edition.
Wain’s cats were a huge hit with readers, marking the beginning of a second, much more successful career as a pet portraitist and one of Victorian England’s most beloved artists. Wain gave his cats human expressions, had them do human things, and put them in contemporary clothing to the delight of newspaper readers and, later, book publishers who sold many thousands of copies of illustrated books featuring nothing but Wain’s anthropomorphic cats.
The Electric Life of Louis Wain weaves a narrative from its subject’s professional life and his lesser-known private life. A polymath, philosopher, amateur boxer and author of some particular ideas about cats and electricity, Wain (played by the always-excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) was an eccentric and not particularly happy with his life until his family hired Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as governess — a home teacher — for Wain’s younger sisters.
Despite the fact that Emily was a decade his senior and such relationships were looked down upon in Victorian England, Wain and Emily married, made it clear they didn’t care what others thought about them, and learned to enjoy life in each other’s company. With the addition of little Peter, the Wains were a happy family.
Louis Wain did not, however, have an easy life. Three years into their blissful marriage, Emily was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Her illness, the subsequent mental deterioration of one of Wain’s younger sisters, and Wain’s own eventual struggles with mental illness cast long shadows over his outlook and his work.
Today, psychologists, art critics and scholars of the man’s career still debate whether — and to what degree — his mental state was reflected in his artwork as his cats took on increasingly psychedelic and abstract qualities. What began as simple kitten sketches morphed into whimsical scenes of expressive cats and eventually trippy images that wouldn’t have looked out of place as album art in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Did Wain truly suffer from severe mental illness, or was he a casualty of a society that banished its “undesirables” to asylums and “lunatic houses”? Was Wain on the autism spectrum? Did the increasingly psychedelic bent of his drawings stem from medications he was given at a time when mental illness was poorly understood and poorly treated?
It depends on what you see in the illustrations. For a man so revered by the public, Wain was remarkably casual about his output — a quality Cumberbatch displays admirably throughout the film — and he didn’t bother to date his drawings. He was prolific, completing many hundreds of cat images throughout his career, in addition to the journalistic images and livestock renderings of his early career, when he was a newspaperman.
What is absolutely clear is that Wain saw something in cats that others didn’t see until he showed it to them with his pencils. He was credited with a major shift in attitude toward cats and the normalization of keeping cats as pets rather than as mousers. Although cats enjoyed companion animal status in various other cultures earlier in human history, the idea of keeping a feline as a pet was novel in Victorian England.
The shift in public attitude was treated humorously — as much of the subject matter is — by the film, with a bewildered Wain accepting the presidency of the Cat Society of England at a fete in his honor, then explaining that tabby markings were the result of electricity flowing through fur.
The subject of electricity comes up again and again in the film, bringing to mind Tesla and another famous British eccentric, Alan Turing, who was also played by Cumberbatch in the 2014 biopic The Imitation Game. Not coincidentally, both movies show that service to crown and country mattered little when British eccentrics were deemed to odd to tolerate. Like Wain, Turing — a war hero who famously cracked the legendary German Enigma cryptography machine — found himself on the wrong side of the UK’s mental institutions when he was convicted of indecency in 1952 after admitting to police, during an interview in an unrelated investigation, that he’d once had a relationship with another man.
Turing was subsequently placed on synthetic estrogen and drugs prescribed to “cure” his mental condition, which had the opposite effect: Turing, a shadow of his former self, his genius blunted, committed suicide by eating an apple he’d laced with cyanide in 1954.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain finds humor in both the light and dark moments of its subject’s life, and it’s a credit to the film’s writers, director and actors that the more lighthearted moments don’t spoil the more serious narrative themes. For his part, Wain was a man who endured a lot of suffering in his life, and if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that no matter what life throws at us, spending time with cats makes things more bearable.