“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” has the same problems as its real-life subject, as it explodes in many directions at once. Benedict Cumberbatch, who also produced the film, played Wain, a late 19th- and early 20th-century illustrator whose drawings of cats were so popular that they helped inspire widespread adoption of cats as pets. Contemporary viewers will enjoy the confused reaction when Wain tells someone he has a cat named Peter. “You mean as a mouser?”
Peter is a companion and source of solace, as today’s pet owners are well-understood. When Peter died, Wain was inconsolable, crying every day for years. His love for cats radiates through his illustrations. HG Wells (brief appearance by musician Nick Cave) said of the pictures, “Cats who don’t look like Louis Wain are ashamed of themselves.”
Olivia Colman provides a sharp narrative, giving us first period context and cheerfully ignoring, as she does so many others, the repressive and colonialist elements of the era: “In addition to its peculiar social prejudices, Victorian England was also a land of scientific innovation and discovery. Many of the world’s best minds are digging deep into the nature of electricity.” But while scientists and inventors tried to use electricity to light up darkness and operate machines, Louis Wain believed that it was the electric force that pulled us forward in time and helped us retain our memories. He called electricity “the key to all of life’s most worrying secrets”. This idea helped inspire his image of the cat, which becomes more stylized and kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic,
Today, we’re going to call it a neuroatypical wine. For example, he draws his intricate artwork with both hands simultaneously, each hand starting at the side of the page, meeting in perfect alignment in the middle. His interactions with other people had a dull clumsiness that might be diagnosed today as the autism spectrum.
He also spent his last decade in a mental hospital. Colman’s narrative tells us that his thoughts were “a dark, screaming storm of paralyzing anxiety and recurring nightmares.” Wain says that his constant, frantic activity is an attempt to manage his mental turmoil. Some contemporary scholars believe he was schizophrenic and the heightened abstractions and fantasies of his images are evidence of his disconnection from reality. The film depicts him experiencing horrific hallucinations that could be caused by psychosis.
He has a lot of external pressure too. She was the sole provider for a “weird and bohemian” widowed mother and five “hungry and precocious” sisters, one of whom would become seriously ill, and neither would contribute to the upbringing of the family. Even after his highly successful job, his poor judgment and lack of understanding of money left his family struggling and in debt.
Wain’s only true moment of peace and happiness is in his incredibly sweet romance with his sister’s nanny, Emily (a warm and witty show by Claire Foy). Peter is a stray cat that they adopted together. She was a great source of comfort when Emily had breast cancer and became very ill. He was the one who told Wain that cats were “silly, goofy, cuddly, frightened, and brave, just like us,” and that inspired the beginning of his whimsical image of cats enjoying human activity, often gently poking fun at fashion. era and fashion.
The chilling fun of Colman’s narrative and postcard-pretty setting is probably meant to give us a taste of Wain’s mind, at least the part that envisions his cat’s strange world. But it makes for an awkward and sometimes insensitive depiction of the story’s more tragic elements. One scene is interspersed with songs on the soundtrack that are primarily “meow”-sounds. The result is an artificial tone that makes those quirky cats more real to us than Wain himself.